Bob Schwartz

Annals of Journalism: The Best Lead Paragraph Ever (Hint: It Involves Miley Cyrus)

Miley Cyrus Joint Dwarf

The Associated Press has issued the following lead paragraph for a story about Miley Cyrus’ most recent antics. It is the best lead paragraph ever.

AMSTERDAM (AP) — In an unabashed — and likely successful — bid for attention, singer Miley Cyrus smoked a joint on stage and twerked with a dwarf during the MTV Europe Music Awards.

Journalism students and logicians, please don’t focus on the joint smoking and the dwarf twerking, and for God’s sake, avert your eyes from the videos and photos (okay, you peeked; it’s irresistible, isn’t it?).

Instead, pay attention to this phrase: “unabashed — and likely successful — bid for attention.” What makes that phrase so delightful, the cherry on the Miley Cyrus-joint-dwarf news sundae, is that one of the largest news organizations in the world is covering the story, moving the success of her bid for attention from “likely” to certain and actual. As sure as the sun rises, Miley Cyrus will do something outrageous (the dwarf is an interesting touch, though it’s hard to say whether it’s trite or hip old school), and even the most respectable media outlets will cover it. So Associated Press, you just made your journalistic prediction come true. Oh the humanity! What would H.L. Mencken say?

 

Rock and Roll Prophecy: Show Biz Kids

Show Biz Kids
Show biz kids making movies
Of themselves you know they
Don’t give a fuck about anybody else
Show Biz Kids, Steely Dan

Pop music self-reflection has been around for decades. The wonderful Lorde does a take on it with Royals, looking at superstar excess from the perspective of a regular teenager. Jethro Tull sang “When you’re too old to rock and roll but too young to die” in 1976—without a time machine to watch 70-year-old Mick Jagger prance around the stage almost forty years later.

But when it comes to visionary, nothing beats Steely Dan’s 1973 Showbiz Kids from the Countdown to Ecstasy album. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen always cast a little bit of jaundiced eye on society, show business and fame, which along with their musical sophistication and eclecticism made them a lock to get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

Their lyrics are often poetic, obscure and ambiguous, but Show Biz Kids is just plain straightforward. Show business, including pop, has had its share of bratty, self-absorbed behavior from star children of all ages. So it’s nothing new, and it may not be more over the top than ever—even if it seems that way sometimes. The poor people are still sleepin’ with the shade on the light while the stars come out at night. Once in a while these days, it appears, as Steely Dan sang, the show biz kids don’t care what they do or how it looks.

While the poor people sleepin’
With the shade on the light
While the poor people sleepin’
All the stars come out at night

After closing time
At the Guernsey Fair
I detect the El Supremo
From the room at the top of the stairs
Well I’ve been around the world
And I’ve been in the Washington Zoo
And in all my travels
As the facts unravel
I’ve found this to be true

They got the house on the corner
With the rug inside
They got the booze they need
All that money can buy
They got the shapely bods
They got the Steely Dan T-shirt
And for the coup-de-gras
They’re outrageous

Show biz kids making movies
Of themselves you know they
Don’t give a fuck about anybody else

Veterans Day and Busby Berkeley

Gold Diggers of 1933
Gold Diggers of 1933 may be the strangest of all classic movies—and the one that has the most to say about Veterans Day 2013.

It is classic because it is still entertaining: snappy, cynical dialogue; singing and dancing that may be a little out of style, but Busby Berkeley production numbers that are still wonders of the world, in part because they were actually performed and filmed on sound stages—no special effects or shortcuts. Your jaw will drop in astonishment and delight.

The strangeness is that framing this jollity is a movie about the Depression—not as a backdrop but about it, head on. Nowhere is this incongruity more obvious than the close of the movie. There is a penultimate mega-happy ending, where the three down-on-their-luck showgirls marry the three rich Boston bluebloods. But just then, there is one last song and production number: Remember My Forgotten Man.

In 1932, most veterans of World War I were out of work, as were so many others. In 1924 the government had authorized a longstanding practice of offering bonuses to those who served in war. This took the form of Certificates of Service, which matured over 20 years, and were to be paid in annual installments. But in the midst of the Depression, the veterans didn’t need that money down the road—they needed it right now. A movement for immediate redemption of the certificates gained momentum (the amount was tens of billions of dollars in today’s money). So in 1932, 43,000 marchers—veterans, their families and their supporters—gathered in Washington in what came to be called the Bonus Army, to demand cash payment. This was rebuffed. President Hoover and Republicans in Congress believed that this would require a tax increase, and that a tax increase would delay the recovery of the economy.

These were the Forgotten Men. As the tragic climax of a musical comedy, we watch a sordid street scene, narrated in song by Gingers Rogers. She is now surviving as a prostitute, married to a war veteran abandoned by the government and the nation. On stage we see the troops marching off in glory to cheers and flag-waving, only to return broken and injured, with no one to greet or comfort them—or even to remember them.

Remember My Forgotten Man

I don’t know if he deserves a bit of sympathy,
Forget your sympathy, that’s all right with me.
I was satisfied to drift along from day to day,
Till they came and took my man away.

Remember my forgotten man,
You put a rifle in his hand;
You sent him far away,
You shouted, “Hip, hooray!”
But look at him today!

Remember my forgotten man,
You had him cultivate the land;
He walked behind the plow,
The sweat fell from his brow,
But look at him right now!

And once, he used to love me,
I was happy then;
He used to take care of me,
Won’t you bring him back again?
‘Cause ever since the world began,
A woman’s got to have a man;
Forgetting him, you see,
Means you’re forgetting me
Like my forgotten man.

Maybe the musicals of the 1930s are old-fashioned and for a lot of people unwatchable. Maybe Busby Berkeley is just some campy choreographer whose over-the-top numbers are funny but incomparable to today’s digital masterpieces. Then again, maybe ending a popular entertainment with a bleak and uncompromising plea to our national conscience isn’t a bad idea—and never goes out of style. Remember Our Forgotten People, circa 2013.