A few nights ago I saw Rihanna in concert. Her performances were fiery, angry. She was believable as a whip-toting badass, strutting onstage in thigh-high hooker boots and chain-mail hosiery, a vision of 21st Century femininity: I'm sexy, but don't touch me. It was a drastic change from her opening show for Kanye West in 2008, which I was also lucky enough to witness.

When I saw her at Kanye's Glow In The Dark Tour, I wrote, "No amount of costume changes or stage dancers can make up for [Rihanna's] obvious lack of hip-hop credibility." How amazing, then, that she arrives onstage in 2010 riding on the barrel of a hot-pink tank blaring lyrics about how hard the game has transformed her.

I'm a huge fan of her last album. Looking back on her ranking on my Happiest Albums of the decade list last December, I should have added Rated R to the top ten; with it's perfectly coalesced emotional ingredients--defiant anger, scorned-girl brattiness, heart-wrenching sadness and reverse-cowgirl sexuality--and admittedly addictive singles (namely "Rude Boy," easily among my favorite songs by Rihanna), Rated R was a near-perfect mainstream pop album.

Somehow, though, a lot of listeners find Rihanna phony and her lyrics empty. Even Pitchfork, the only music review website with any credibility, called her new direction "expected" and unoriginal. See, that's just sad. Christina Aguilera may have released a defiant second album, and Janet may have The Velvet Rope, but to say Rihanna's bitter verses are expected is offensive to female musicians everywhere. Drake just recently released an album full of self-conscious admittances and crumbling-ego confessions, yet no one pointed out the obvious comparisons to every single Kanye West album. Do you want a full album of "Pon De Replays?" Because I will choose "Rockstar 101" over anything on A Girl Like Me or Music of the Sun.

Oh, and there's this.


Teenage Dream

Last night I was at a summer party for the agency I worked for last year. I've stayed in touch with nearly every employee, and regularly do contract creative work for the company.

The creative director, whom I admire for more reasons than I can count, is one of the biggest influences in my life. My relationship with him and the other creatives at the office form an essential component of my ego, and is why I work hard to impress anyone I respect. Of course, I was also given one of his Prada bathing suits recently, and wearing it in his strobing hot tub with his partner and our friends at 2:00 a.m. is entirely surreal; one of those, "I live a good life" kind of moments.

But, aside from a hangover, I woke up today in a melancholy haze. Something about being 21, about entering the senior year of my University education, about moving on and out and up and over--I wouldn't say I'm scared, but I am feeling a bit jarred in regards to my future, out of harmony with what I so easily picture in my head. I feel focused, and being with people I imitate always serves to remind me of What I Ultimately Want, but in all seriousness, how the hell am I going to get it?

This morning will be marked as a turning point. I'm going to work harder than ever; I will only accept flawlessness in everything I do, and I can't afford to wait for opportunities (as if I've ever waited around for anything). I need to be what I want to be today, not next Monday. Not once finals are over. Not "once I've balanced out my schedule."

I guess I am kind of scared. I'm worried that I won't be able to live up to the life I've built for myself, the reputation I've secured and the expectations of the people I would die for. (I'm not even dramatizing here--I have problems with obsession.) I am cleaning up my squeaky-clean act, adding a second hitch to my star and riding this out in hopes of surprising even myself.


I Pity The Haters

The most intense and divisive conversations I have with people nearly always begin with, "I have a song I want to play you."

Pop music is a litmus test in the process of young adult coolness authenticity: "You listen to Bon Iver?" [You're cool.] "You listen to Kylie Minogue?" [You're lame, unintelligent, out-of-the-loop, immature, self in-actualized.]

Essentially, pop music can be enjoyed by girls aged in single digits, so if you listen to pop music you have the taste of a nine year-old. Of course, there are exceptions. Lady Gaga, for instance, has been scratched off the Guilty Pleasure list by Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, the birthplaces of indie cred and tectonic divergence zones for what is and is not acceptable to have on your iPod. Other exceptions involve music sites like Hype.fm and Pandora. ("If Taylor Swift plays in my Pheonix channel, I can't help that. I only have so many songs I can skip per hour!")

You can also be so out you're in, like Fergie. I'm not sure how that works, but everyone loves Fergie. I know cokeheads and band agents and American Apparel employees alike who will lose their shit when "Glamorous" comes on. "This is my jam!"

The irony is that many artists with a massive "underground" (i.e. depressed hipster) following like Uffie have pop sensibilities stronger than major aboveground musicians. "DVNO" by Justice is more radio-friendly than anything Gwen Stefani ever released, and she has multiple #1's and a legion of teenage fans.

Acceptable music acts like The Gossip, Tokyo Police Club, and Surfer Blood are the aural equivalent of nails being repeatedly driven into my skull. If I was a cave man, I'd love the grating chorus line of "Keep The Car Running" by Arcade Fire, but I heard Britney Spears' "Crazy" as a preteen inside a Chuck E. Cheese and know that pop music can change your life.

Pop music doesn't alter your life in the same way Fiona Apple does, however. Pop music is so frothy you don't even need to filter the lyrics. With our intellectual webs disabled, pop music hits directly at our pleasure (or pain) centers. The sensation can be so real even the most jaded of hipsters will, I guarantee you, dance when "Rude Boy" plays. They will belt out Mariah's "We Belong Together" in private. They will play Katy Perry's newest single, "Teenage Dream," and tear up in their rooms reflecting on high school memories.

"Teenage Dream" is a perfect example of Pop That Changes Your Life: "You say I'm pretty without any makeup on/...let's go all the way tonight." Damn. Have we not all lived through this? Why cast hate on a story told through this medium? As if hipsters speak more eloquently than most pop music is sung. "You make me/ feel like I'm living a/ teenage dream." There's no pretense. Come as you are, listeners, because we've all been teenagers and you don't need a degree from Columbia and a longtime pretend relationship with "a fashion designer from Brooklyn" to appreciate the first time you woke up and realized you were a little less innocent than you were the day before.

I pity anyone who can't appreciate the sugar rush of Kylie Minogue's "Get Out of My Way" or the electric bounce of Leighton Meester's "Your Love's A Drug." A good pop song, on first listen, can be better than sex. Just as pop can give life, however, pop also taketh away; I remember listening to Usher's "Love In This Club" (a painfully mediocre pop song, really) in the car for the first time and nearly getting into a wreck due to my temporary ecstasy.

We cheat pop music out of whatever potential it has to effect people when we label it the way we do; "deep art" can often be even more transparent than pop, which has a sense of irony and is rarely serious. There's more humor in Perry's "California Gurls" than in any song The Heartless Bastards ever conceived, more tangible emotion in Robyn's "Should Have Known" than any sculpture in the MoMA. (This may or may not be an exaggeration.)

I can't convince anyone to like pop music. You understand the appeal or you don't. However, like someone born with a poor sense of smell can never understand the appeal of French food, I can only try my best not to rub it in.


What is happening?!

Today I woke up at nine after a full nights' sleep. I watched Ellen and drank two cups of coffee.

After breakfast, I meandered over to the office where I worked six hours designing; I made $100.00. Got compliments from my boss.

During my lunch hour, I planned a trip to Portugal with my brother. Dad said, "Yes."

I then came home to see I had received a new book two days ahead of schedule. ("Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man," by Bill Clegg.)

I washed down a beer and drove to Central Market; saw an old friend of mine who has a crush on me. (Tonight, my friends were having a vegetarian barbeque by the pool, so I picked up my favorite salsa and a pack of Blue Moon beer.)

I drank more, ate decent tofu kebabs, and we talked about relationships and the rapping style of Nikki Minaj.

At ten, I left for home to watch my favorite Bravo show and finish reading Bridges of Madison County.

Two years ago, I would call this a very full and satisfying day. The perfect summer evening, spent with friends and flies and frothy sweet alcohol. Money in the pocket, a trip quickly approaching, and a pretty decent tan.

I'm still "happy." Yet, right now, I am frightfully discontented with my life.

American Glamor?

I've recently become obsessed with the style of paparazzi photos. The spontaneity, their rough quality; I find the way in which they're captured fascinating, as well. Obtrusive, uninvited photographers capture people at their most vulnerable. CSS Lewis once said somewhere, "If someone is caught off guard they're true soul is shown." Or, you know. Something like that.

This photo is of Mischa Barton, someone I have never actually seen act or sing or dance in any capacity whatsoever. I don't care about her. The photo, however, is stunning. It's actually a paparazzi shot I gave a quickie edit to reveal the composition. Mischa is now kind of a fatso, which makes this even more interesting; her golden moments are gone.

If only I had been there to watch her glow fade!



Shot for my friend, musician Jennifer Sullivan. More to come...


21 Years

Tomorrow, at exactly 12:07 a.m., I will have been alive on this earth for 21 years.

Twenty-one years of love, and family, and laughter. Twenty-one years of phenomenal friends, the best mother in the world, a loving and accepting father--a best friend in my brother.

But it has also been 21 years of tears and heartbreak. Melodramatic and ultimately minor, in truth, but I have felt pain so suffocating I could not breathe, so painful I could not open my eyes. I have "seen the light," but it was so bright it left me blind. I have also felt fear, a lot of fear. An inordinate, unnecessary amount of fear.

But right now, on this night, I am alive. I am alive with the soft yellow light of my room, the fan blowing air like passing phantoms; I am alive with three glasses on the side of my bed--one for water, one for coffee, one this evening's wine; I am alive with my floor completely camouflaged in old art prints and khakis, a copy of Interview splayed open to a shot of M.I.A.

I love fiercely and only know love that is obsessive, grasping, under the skin. Detriment--likely--but a Universal Truth of Dustin O'Neal at Twenty. Maybe I'll learn casual love later.

As I teeter on this brink, the true, last moment of childhood, I feel nothing. I am happy, but I was happy yesterday.

And I'll be happy tomorrow, as long as everyone shows up to my party.