by Lang Whitaker

Welcome back, kind of. For all of our international readers, the last few days here in the states have been dominated by holidays. First was Thanksgiving, then Black Friday, a purely commerce-driven event concocted by merchants, where pre-Christmas sales officially kick-off. I went to an outlet mall in Florida on Black Friday, which will go down in history as one of the worst decisions of my life. I felt like I was John Rambo, as I elbowed my way through throngs of people. At one point I walked past a women’s bathroom and there was full-fledged brawl going on at the door, as obese grumpy ladies battled to get in there. I almost took a picture with my camera phone, but I was worried someone might think I was a pervert or something.

I left New York a week ago, and over the last week I only managed to watch a handful of NBA games; surprisingly, neither my mother-in-law nor my parents have League Pass. As I studied the entertainment offerings made available to me on basic cable over the last week, I kept a few notes. And since I’m stuck at the airport in Atlanta right now for the foreseeable future, I might as well write something…

• “A Shot At Love with Tila Tequila” — I understand MySpace, I just choose not to participate. (This is even though I do have a MySpace page, though I have nothing to do with it. I wrote a blog for adidas during the last World Cup, and they had a partnership with MySpace, so they built me a MySpace page and did all the upkeep on it. Since then they’ve apparently continued to add friends and approve comments. I don’t even know how to log into “my” space.) I have no beef with MySpace, though I’m suspicious of anything that turns Dane Cook into a megastar.

Similarly, somehow this Tila Tequila woman became a celebrity via MySpace. Before her new MTV reality show, I’m not sure what exactly she was known for, other than having thousands of MySpace friends, sizeable breasts and an alluring smile. Plus, anyone who shares a last name with a type of liquor must be gangsta.

Regardless, or probably because of that stuff, she now has a program on MTV that seems to air in perpetuity. And against my better judgment, I watched hours of her show this week. I knew I shouldn’t be watching it, but it was like a gruesome car wreck: I couldn’t look away.

The premise of the show is genius: straight men and lesbians fight for the affections of a bisexual bachelorette (Ms. Tequila). To receive her affections, the contestants compete against each other in strange stunts, such as rolling around in a pool filled with melted chocolate, and then figuring out a way to transport the liquid chocolate to a huge pail using only their body parts and bathing suits.

I say they fight for the “affections” of Ms. Tequila, because when people win a contest on the show, they are rewarded with alone time with Ms. Tequila. I haven’t seen every episode of this series, but on every program I’ve seen, the winners and Ms Tequila retreat to a secluded location. They then chat amiably for a few minutes, then the contestant declares their unending love for Ms. Tequila. An interview with Ms. Tequila is then edited in, during which Ms. Tequila admits to feeling a genuine attraction to the contestant, but also feeling conflicted about that contestant for various reasons. And then Ms. Tequila and the winning contestant spend some time in a graphic make-out session.

At the end of each program, Ms. Tequila dismisses a contestant, and on two different shows that I saw, brawls broke out. These contestants were so upset that Ms. Tequila did not love them that they felt their only recourse was to beat somebody up. In this sense, “A Shot at Love” resembles the heyday of “The Jerry Springer Show” — you know a fight is probably coming at the end of the show, but it’s still fun when the fisticuffs break out.

The contestants on each show are instantly forgettable. One guy is a student, another is an oil company executive, one woman is a real estate agent. One guy is Italian and speaks English with a thick accent. One woman has a traditionally male haircut and dresses like a boy off at summer camp. The only thing that makes it truly interesting is the prospect of violence. And the soft-core titillation that fills every episode.

Every time I watch an episode, I immediately feel measurably dumber. But I can’t turn away.

• “Dan In Real Life” — On Thanksgiving night, Wifey and I went to go see “American Gangster,” which I’d already seen, but it was sold out. Instead we settled for “Dan In Real Life,” which was starting just then and which I knew absolutely nothing about other than it starred Steve Carell. I haven’t gotten into the NBC version of “The Office,” but I liked Carell in “Anchorman” and in “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” so I figured “Dan In Real Life” might not be bad.

But it was.

Carell was actually pretty good in the film. He plays a recently widowed father of three teenage girls who is struggling to get his groove back. But instead of going to Jamaica and finding a younger Jamaican man, Carell and his girls go to a family reunion at a beach house on the Rhode Island shore. Upon arriving, he heads to the local bookstore to buy a paper and meets a French woman, who he falls for, only to return to the house and discover that the woman is the new girlfriend of his brother (played by Dane Cook, of all people).

The extended family is completely unbelievable. They stage talent shows! They do crossword puzzles together! They play charades! Add this to the setting of the film — a craggy, blustery seascape — and it feels like an Old Spice ad crossed with a Norman Rockwell painting.

Juliette Binoche is the French woman Carell and Cook are after. Her character is mostly personality-less, and her greatest appeal appears to be that she just listens to everyone else complain about their lives and furrows her brow attentively. Every person in the movie seems to love her, I suppose because she brought an appropriate amount of cable-knit sweaters to the beach house, but she looks about ten years too old for the role.

Still, there were some funny bits in the movie, and I laughed out loud a couple of times. I’d file this solidly in the “Wait Until It’s On Starz” category. And even then I wouldn’t schedule an evening around it.

• Beyonce as R. Kelly. — While driving from Atlanta to Florida on Thursday, I had my iPod on shuffle, and when you have 4,000 songs on your iPod, there’s all kinds of crazy stuff on there you’ve probably never listened to. I have a bunch of stuff on mine that’s not even labeled, because my homey Leah from XXL magazine always gives me mix CDs of popular music that I just transfer onto my iTunes without taking the time to enter a name for each song.

As I crossed into Florida, Beyonce’s “Check On It” came on. I’d heard the song in the background of my life the last few years, in casinos or bars or while dance teams performed at NBA arenas, but I’d never really sat and listened to the lyrics. This time I did, and I was surprised by how graphic they were.

In the song, Beyonce appears to be in a club, and a fellow club-goer seems to have his eye on her. Instead of simply returning the eye contact, Beyonce decides she wants to get freaky with the gentleman.

“Oooh boy, you’re looking like you like what you see,” she notes, before later urging, “If I let you get up on it, you gotta make a promise/That you gone put it on me, like no ones put it on me/Don’t bore me, just show me, all men talk but don’t please/I can be a tease, but I really wanna please you.”

It’s a fun, throwaway song, meant to be listened to and forgotten about four minutes later.

But what’s amazing to me is that as this song is still being played in clubs and on pop radio stations, Beyonce has simultaneously positioned herself as harlot and an international corporate spokesperson. While she’s on ads for DirecTV, make-up companies and performing at the Academy Awards, she’s telling men she just met at a club that she’ll let them have their way with her, as long as they don’t tell anyone about it. (Which raises the question: Wouldn’t being able to tell everyone you hooked up with Beyonce be half the fun of hooking up with Beyonce? OK, maybe not half the fun, but still…) Obviously, she’s singing as a character, but still, could you imagine someone like Celine Dion or even Whitney Houston assuming such a graphic character?

Maybe a decade ago, I wrote an essay for the paper in Atlanta about R. Kelly. At the time he was just crossing over to the mainstream, and I found the approach he was taking a fascinating one. As I wrote back then…

If only we could all be as blessed as R. Kelly. Sure, Kelly has sold billions of records and reached the point where he never has to work another day in his life. But what truly sets R. Kelly apart from you and I is his malleable moral code, which will stretch to allow most anything at times, then immediately snap back into place with Kelly suffering no consequences. It sets him apart, and makes him wildly successful.

It all started with Kelly’s first release, 1991’s underwhelming “Born Into the ’90s”. Still feeling his way with audiences, Kelly went R&B-lite and resisted pulling out all the stops. Two years later Kelly hit back with “12 Play”, its title a veiled reference to Kelly’s self-professed, er, longevity. For the first time, Kelly tries to reach the freak in all of us. With song titles like “Your Body’s Callin'” and “I Like the Crotch on You,” Kelly asks us all to get down and dirty with him.

And we did. “12 Play” went on to sell over four million copies, while another suggestively titled single, “Bump and Grind,” dominated the Billboard R&B singles chart longer than any other single had in thirty years.

Since those days Kelly has gone on to establish himself has a top-notch songwriter and producer with Changing Faces and Aaliyah, as well as writing for Toni Braxton and Michael Jackson. (Kelly wrote Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone,” one of only two number ones Jackson has had in the last decade.)

Firmly established as an R&B superstar, Kelly did perhaps the only thing left for him to do: record an animated movie theme song. And when he did, with the inspirational anthem “I Believe I Can Fly” from 1996’s “Space Jam” soundtrack, the track’s massive success changed everything. As the song rocketed to the top of the charts, Kelly’s popularity shot up alongside it and turned him into a certifiable cross-over celebrity of Entertainment Tonight caliber.

With mainstream popularity, though, comes responsibility. In America we like our megastars to be role models: Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Garth Brooks, not Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. So last month as Kelly’s 2-CD epic, the concisely tagged “R.”, hit the stores, it was unclear which R. Kelly we’d get: one who celebrates rampant horniness or one who praises the beauty of the sunset and other such lily white sentiments. Nothing against giving praise to spirituality and uplift, but there’s also something to be said for the lascivious, booty-call ballad. And no one does that better than Kelly.

Within minutes of wading into “R.”‘s 29 tracks, all worries subside. It’s all there — the lewd lines (“You could treat the future like a menu as long as I’m the only one to bend you”), the randy boasts (“No room service baby, cause you will be the feast”) — perhaps a bit more covert, but definitely still there. At least 25 of the songs, in fact, touch on sex in some way. The mack is back. “R.” is Kelly’s money shot.

But damn, on the album’s next to last song, Kelly goes and does it again: “I’m Your Angel” features 5 minutes and 20 seconds of Kelly dueting with none other than Celine Dion! The ultimate crossover. With a classic top 40 melody and enough feel-good messages for a box of candy hearts, Kelly and Dion will be waiting for you at the cash register this holiday season (and all the while expose each other to totally new audiences). Appropriately, “I’m Your Angel”‘s video debuted recently on CBS’s sappy series, “Touched By An Angel.” And I was hoping Kelly would break into an impromptu chorus of “I Like the Crotch on that Angel.”

Perhaps Kelly has found his niche in the divide between supastar and superstar. By simultaneously appealing to mainstream commercial culture and still “keeping it real” with his urban audience, Kelly stands poised to do what few artists this side of Marvin Gaye have pulled off — crossing blatant sexuality with whole milk and apple pie to make one hell of a funkdafied casserole.

Obviously, Kells has found worry since then, and maybe the character we thought he was playing was a little closer to the truth than he let on.

And in re-reading that old article I wrote, I fond it funny that I referenced how America didn’t want Dre or Cube as a role model, because look who crossed over! Cube’s even starring in family films these days. Maybe I’ve changed, or maybe America has changed. Heck, I just wrote a couple hundred words about a mainstream TV show where bisexuality is the hook.

Dunno…just something I was thinking about this week.

• “Love in the Time of Cholera” — At that Steve Carrell movie, they showed a preview for the film adaptation of “Love In The Time Of Cholera,” which is one of my favorite books of all-time. The book is a love story, about two people who want to be together but are kept apart by fate, like that Tila Tequila show. The book is amazing, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez is an incredible writer. If you’ve never read Garcia Marquez, you should. If love stories ain’t your thing, check out “One Hundred Years Of Solitude.”

• “Project Runway” — Uh-oh, time to board the flight. I’ll have to make this work another time.

Back to the NBA tomorrow…