Review: Golden Globe-Nominated “The Favourite” Is Already an Awards Season Favorite

Director Yorgos Lanthimos is back with another unique film 

 Fox Searchlight

Fox Searchlight

On the surface, The Favourite might seem like yet another British royalist period piece in the era of Downton Abbey and The Crown. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Favourite has bite — sometimes literally — and a wicked sense of humor. Its lesbian and bisexual storylines are given depth, complexity and central attention. The plot is gripping, and the ending surprising. 

 Fox Searchlight

Fox Searchlight

Emma Stone plays a disgraced Lady, working hard as a maid for the aging Anne, Queen of Great Britain (played by an exquisite Olivia Colman) to regain her noble status after her husband sold her off. For an American actress, her British accent does not feel forced or false. Opposite Rachel Weisz’s Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, Stone does career-best work battling for the lustful Anne’s attention. Weisz gives the film the heft and weight it needs to feel grounded in the time period, while also giving us some GIF-worthy quips. 

This is no surprise if you have seen one of director Yorgos Lanthimos’ films. His 2015 work The Lobster established him as an awards-worthy auteur with a penchant for the irregular. I mean, the plot of The Lobster found actor Colin Farrell forced to couple up by a deadline, or else he would turn into a lobster. Last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer starring Farrell and Nicole Kidman also had a purposefully off tone. Its provocative dialog was delivered a clinical, dry tone by stone-faced actors. 

While The Favourite certainly contains irregular moments and provocative dialog, it is different from Lobster and Deer in that it feels a bit more palatable for mainstream audiences. Judging by the reaction of the sold out audience, all the jokes land and all the twists tantalize. It could be one of the rare awards season films to be a surprise box office hit. 


Now playing in select theaters


What has been your favorite new movie of 2018? Tweet me! @DerekPlease

Review: Widows Raises the Bar for Modern Screenwriting

A spoiler-free take on the genius of collaborative storytelling.

widows-4_rgb.jpg

No writer can authentically create the heart, mind and soul of a character whose experience they cannot relate with. One can come very close, but there are nuances that get missed; “tells” that register with the audience, even subconsciously. 

That’s what makes the co-screenwriting team of writer-director Steve McQueen and writer Gillian Flynn pop in Widows. Each brings their own experiences to the table, infusing the storytelling with the authentic African-American and female perspectives missing in so many similar thriller screenplays. Gone are any distracting stereotypes, cliches, or false moments, leaving room for breathtaking storytelling that feels new and raw, but should have arrived decades ago.

Part of Viola Davis’ brilliance as lead character Veronica Rawlins is a direct result of the screenwriting collaboration between McQueen and Flynn. Underestimated, gritty and real, Rawlins joins the pantheon of flawed Flynn anti-heroines established in previous works Gone Girl, Dark Places and Sharp Objects. Unlike those characters, Rawlins is a black woman, and Flynn defers to McQueen in portraying aspects of Rawlins that a white writer could not get right. Rawlins’ reactions to events that mirror the modern reality of the black experience — from casual or blatant racism to police brutality — are rendered powerfully authentic by McQueen’s penning. 

It’s also increasingly rare to see a film in which the screenwriting is so focused, to the point that every syllable matters. Widows does not hold its audience’s hand; if you’re not paying attention, you’re left behind. Clever foreshadowing sets up subtle reveals that will be entirely missed by distracted audience members. 

 Photos from Warner Bros.

Photos from Warner Bros.

In what feels like a conscious choice, Widows almost entirely avoids showcasing digital devices or their screens. It’s a huge departure from similar modern thrillers, many of which rely on digital technology for their very premise, or overlay text message conversation bubbles on screen. In the one or two times a computer screen is shown, there is as little motion as possible on screen, making a Google Map feel like a paper counterpart. When characters in Widows text, you rely on the actors’ reactions to the sent and received messages to get the gist of what’s said. 

Analog technology is peppered throughout. Grieving, Rawlins drops the needle on a vinyl record. Weapons or pyrotechnics used by the cast are analog; no cheesy digital thriller tropes. This authentic, back-to-basics feeling is refreshing in a film set in modern day. Indeed, authenticity is what gives Widows its edge and its power, and hopefully what sets it apart in the sure-to-be-competitive upcoming awards season. 

5/5 stars 

Widows opens in wide release Friday, November 16.


What is your favorite thriller? Tweet me: @DerekPlease

Review: Troye Sivan Brings The Bloom Tour to a Sold-Out State Theatre

Sivan stunned alongside well-matched opening acts Kim Petras and Carlie Hanson

 Photo Credits, Left to Right: Danielle DeGrasse-Alston; Charlotte Rutherford; Naohmi Monroe

Photo Credits, Left to Right: Danielle DeGrasse-Alston; Charlotte Rutherford; Naohmi Monroe

Troye Sivan

 Photo: Brackett Hardy

Photo: Brackett Hardy

After releasing the personal-yet-glossy debut album Blue Neighbourhood in late 2015, Troye Sivan and co. elaborated upon its original content for the US singles; by remixing and adding an Alessia Cara feature, “Wild” became less unique, and more radio-friendly. His no-holds-barred sophomore album Bloom pivots completely in the opposite direction, fully leaning into the personal side with little-to-no audible sense of catering to radio. As a track title suggests, it’s truly “The Good Side” of Sivan. 

 Photo: Joey Diaz

Photo: Joey Diaz

His sold-out State Theatre crowd on October 17 was unanimously supportive of that artistic decision, having already memorized every single syllable of all Bloom tracks performed — despite it being less than two months after the LP’s release. That’s the kind of devoted fandom that the 23-year-old Australian singer has cultivated through genuine connection with supporters both online and in person.

Blue Neighbourhood songs were met with a mix of sweet nostalgia and fresh excitement, as surely only a portion of the State Theatre-sized crowd was able to pack into First Avenue for Sivan’s previous Minneapolis gig a few years back. Many fans were hearing their old favorites live for the first time, like “Wild,” on which one of Sivan’s fantastic female backing vocalists sang Alessia Cara’s guest verse. That trend continued in performances songs like “Heaven” and “Dance to This,” with the backing vocalists lending their talents to parts originally sang by Betty Who and Ariana Grande, respectively. 

At times The Bloom Tour felt so interactive, that in the best way it was less a show than a 360 experience. Phones were up, but unlike most concerts in 2018, people didn’t seem desperate to capture the moment. They seemed to understand the best way to capture the moment, was to actually be in it — something Troye Sivan encouraged throughout the night, rewarding individual fans in the crowd with meet and greets and kudos for birthdays and handing out flyers before the show. The crowd even interacted with the crowd, such as when friend groups separated by rows, aisles and even the balcony were seen waving and pantomiming in between and during performances.

 Photo: Joachim Johnson

Photo: Joachim Johnson

The full-out dancing and excitement of the crowd during songs like “Bite” was encouraged by the artist himself, both outright in his banter in between songs, and in the Las Vegas club-like light rig on the back of the stage. Epilepsy warning signs were posted outside entrances, as the intense light show was intentionally bold, yet seriously exhilarating. 

There’s a lot of talk about how Sivan feels like familiar artists — David Bowie, Adam Lambert, Lorde — but not enough talk about how he’s unlike anyone else. Able to bring fans together, in the moment, in the otherwise disassociated times we live in. Able to ignite an entire crowd, but also single out individual fans for their contribution to his show. And perhaps it’s due to the venue not being able to handle stadium-level crowd roar, but I cannot for the life of me remember back to a concert with crowd feedback on par with The Bloom Tour. Not even at Madonna, or peak Britney.

Mere human ears cannot distinguish individual sounds when Sivan elicits peak response from fans in rapture. It’s hard to describe the sensation of your sense of hearing temporarily shorting out due to one human being in the front of room being the target of utter pandemonium. It just feels like pure love. 

Kim Petras

 Photo by Charlotte Rutherford

Photo by Charlotte Rutherford

We’re in a drought. The wells of pop music have been dried up for a while now, with most well-known pop acts pivoting to other genres like country and R&B to appeal to changing tastes in the general public. Who can save us with a bubblegum pop anthem on the level of Britney Spears’ pop genre-resurrecting 1998 debut single “…Baby One More Time”?

The clear frontrunner is Kim Petras, a 26-year-old Millennial pop artist that is a perfect antidote for an otherwise pretty boring sonic landscape. Already a favorite on “Stan” Twitter — the social network’s community of rabid pop music fans — Petras has quickly proceeded to win the Twin Cities’ affection with a successful radio campaign for her most notable track, “Heart to Break.” Fittingly, she took a moment to thank local Top 40 station KDWB for playing that single more often than any other station in the United States. 

 Photo by Charlotte Rutherford

Photo by Charlotte Rutherford

In “Heart to Break,” Kim Petras belts a strong pop chorus written about reckless abandon in newfound love. It’s the kind of vocally challenging chorus that relies solely on the strength of the lead singer, and just as Petras nailed it in the studio, she delivered live on stage in Minneapolis. Her sincere vocals layered perfectly over the slamming pop beat of her backing DJ/co-producer Aaron Joseph, making the infectious bop-of-a-song a perfect match for the authenticity-seeking crowd of Troye Sivan fans. 

Fans were also lit-up by performances of fresh tracks from her deservedly-lauded Halloween mixtape Turn Off the Light, Vol. 1. The ghostly crooner “Tell Me It’s a Nightmare” pulls double duty as a pop banger and somewhat of a torch ballad. Both Petras and Joseph took things to new heights, jumping up and down to beat-heavy tracks like this and “I Don’t Want It At All.” 

Though she has said, “I just hate the idea of using my identity as a tool,” Kim Petras’ identity as a transgender woman is another aspect that makes her a needed addition to current mainstream music. While the Trump administration actively moves to legislate away trans rights, Petras serves as a bubblegum pop champion for our times; showing LGBT kids and adults alike that they can succeed against adversity. The LGBT community’s support of out and proud public figures like her has become vital to our community’s freedom. 

Kim Petras ended her State Theatre set with a triumphant vocal performance of “Can’t Do Better,” a fittingly titled anthem about a lover not being able to find a replacement for her. Fans of pop music likely also can’t do better than Petras, a rare artist that mixes power pop with power vocals. 

Carlie Hanson

 Photo by Naohmi Monroe

Photo by Naohmi Monroe

[Review by Jake]

Alongside her band, 18-year-old pop artist Carlie Hanson emerged on stage to thunderous applause from a crowd generally close to her age. She immediately launched into “Why Did You Lie?” — an exciting first song, full of energy that pumped up the crowd. 

 Photo by Naohmi Monroe

Photo by Naohmi Monroe

Hanson announced her next song was “Toxins,” a new single that would debut on streaming platforms only two days later. She bounced across the stage while her infectious hook and her bands’ skilled playing enchanted the State Theatre. Despite the song not being out yet at the time, many in the crowd were seen bobbing their heads and dancing in their seats.

A personal touch came when Hanson interacted with the lit-up crowd, announcing that her best friends from her hometown of Blue Cross, Wisconsin were at the show. She complemented this more tender moment with a more chill, unreleased song, “Hazel,” notable for its hypnotic beat. Background lighting was used very well during this performance, starting with blue hues, then greens shifting into blaring reds in the chorus.

The effervescent Hanson invited everyone to sing along to her streaming hits, and also took care to properly introduce her band members. She proclaimed her last song — the Instagram and Drake-referencing “Us” — was “a fuck you anthem,” and asked the won-over crowd stick their middle fingers up. Lighting once again lent an artful touch to the performance, with deep and dark reds that transformed the State Theatre into a darkroom, with bright white strobe lights during the chorus for emphasis.


What’s your favorite Troye Sivan song? DM me on Instagram.

Exclusive: Aja and Director Assaad Yacoub Talk New Music Video in On-Set Interview

A joint music video for “Bitch I’m Kawaii” and “Ayo Sis” brings the barrier-smashing performer close to completing their visual EP.

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

Rapper and RuPaul’s Drag Race & All Stars 3 alumni Aja filmed their new music video for the killer tracks “Bitch I’m Kawaii” and “Ayo Sis” in Downtown Los Angeles, CA on September 12, 2018. Yours truly had the honor of being on set — observing the action, and interviewing both Aja and the video’s director, Assaad Yacoub.

I spoke one-on-one with Aja between the filming of two key scenes. Our discussion was candid, revelatory, and fun. As we spoke, the crew moved their camera and lighting set up from a stuffed animal bureau set to a New York-style apartment bedroom scene.


Aja

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

Derek: I’m really excited to interview you again. So, why did you chose this double track as your new single?

Aja: Well, it was never supposed to actually be my single. “Art God” was going to be the next single. Then I just kind of thought, I have some time, I’m going to be in LA for a few days. I want to shoot a new music video. I couldn’t really decide between the two tracks, “Ayo Sis” and “Bitch I’m Kawaii.” So I said, you know what, why not Missy Elliot it. Who I actually rode with to LA, she was on my plane.

D: Oh! Really?

A: By the way, yeah, which is really random.

D: Wow, that’s awesome!

A: You know how Missy Elliot used to do like those combination videos, where it would be like two videos in one? I was like, why don’t I do that for the last two tracks on my EP, and I’ll be the first person to ever come off of Drag Race and have turned their entire EP into a visual collection of items.

I thought, if we’re going to do this, we should like make it into something very positive. I want to put it into a kind of project where I could promote something I was very interested in. So, we’re using “Bitch I’m Kawaii." The idea of the video is going to be that I’m sleeping with my trans girlfriend, as a male presenting person, and I go into this dream world where it’s kinda like taking a spin on the idea of having a wet dream and it’s kinda gone wrong. And the wet dream will be “Bitch I’m Kawaii,” so there’s like a bathtub and bubbles, and I’ll be in and out of drag in the scene. 

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

I kinda hated “Bitch I’m Kawaii.” I hate the track, so right before it hits the chorus, I wake up and I just had a nightmare. My girlfriend is supposed to be like, “Are you ok?” and I’m like, “No, I just had a nightmare.” Then it kinda starts going into “Ayo Sis.” Which, when I wrote it, it was a feminist anthem — or like an anthem for people who wanted to appreciate femininity. Something that happened recently to me was, I was told my gender nonbinary identity was invalid by these people that claimed to be “radical feminists,” and there are people that don’t believe in trans people at all. I actually got banned from Twitter for telling someone they were a senseless cow for being transphobic online.

D: Wow. 

A: I wanted to use “Ayo Sis” to push the narrative of appreciating femininity, but also very specifically, in the song, I name a lot of my own female icons. I wanted to use the video as a way of showing how normal like trans lives are. Trans people are normal people and there’s nothing wrong. Also, there’s a part where I’m in my female representation of my gender nonbinary identity. Which people get confused by, because you don’t adhere to any gender; you can present however you want. Which is what being queer is all about. So out of drag, I will be having a trans girlfriend, but in drag, or in that feminine character, I will have a very heteronormative looking boyfriend. To promote that straight men can have trans girlfriends, and straight men can have nonbinary girlfriends, and it’s okay. It doesn’t challenge society as much as people think it does. It is really not serious, and I think that there’s a lot said about the safety of trans women, especially trans women of color. People can just see for themselves, like if you watch this video, it’s just two people who are having fun, are in love and are celebrating.

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

D: Yeah, definitely. So, with your own gender identity, you have been living as and identifying as genderqueer for a while now. What are your preferred pronouns?

A: I usually just go by they/them, but I rarely like ever offended or slighted by like anything else, but I know there are some people who are. The best thing to do is just to ask. I actually just watched this video on YouTube. There’s this one dude, I think he’s a Republican or something, and he always does like the “convince me why this matters.” He was trying to find out why trans lives are normal, and people were teaching him about preferred pronouns and he was like, “Well if I want to call somebody this, I’m going to call somebody that.” So, like that I will never get around to. I’ll never understand why you can’t call somebody what they want to be called. It’s like, if you want to be called Tom, I’ll call you Tom. So, if somebody wants to be referred to as a he or she, or they or them, why can’t you do just that?

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

D: Yeah, that’s very valid. Actually in your first answers, you actually answered my second question, which was the inspiration behind the video, so we tackled that one (Laughs). So, this is your fourth music video with director Assaad Yacoub. Describe your collaboration process with him, and why are you a good fit together.

A: It works because I hate him. (Pause, laughs) I’m just kidding. You know what it is, me and Assaad are friends. We met on the set of “C.L.A.T..” It’s technically our fifth collaboration.

D: Oh, cool!

A: But, it’s my fourth solo with just him and me. Assaad is a very rambunctious person who has personality that’s similar to a dog with paranoia. He’s all over the place, and crazy, but he’s one of those people — 

Assaad, listening nearby, barks like a dog.

Aja: (Over their shoulder) Yeah, I’m talking about you! (Laughs) He knows how to bring to life a vision. The thing is, I’m a very hands on person like, I am like pretty much the stylist, visual director and creative director of all my music videos. Assaad will — (Over their shoulder) Assaad, I can see you listening to me, move over! — always put his input in. He will take everything that I tell him, and try to create the perfect shot for it. So, if I’m like, “Hey, this is the part where we’re casting a spell and I want mountains, and I want to wear a long robe, and I want to be doing this…” Assaad will be like, “Okay we need to capture from this angle, and we need to put it this way.” And, like whichever way will make it the most exciting. I think we work well together because he likes a challenge, and I’ll always give him a challenge.

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

D: Yeah, it seems like you guys — because I was observing during the “Bitch I’m Kawaii" set up over there — it seems like you have a great dynamic. The last time we spoke, in the interview, you spoke about using drag less as a means of a theatrical performance, and more as a queer expression in your daily life.

A: Yes.

D: Where are you on that journey?

A: Honestly, like at this point, I think that I’m just expressing myself, still doing me. Like the thing is, the big reason I don’t want to just use the term of “drag” is because I feel like people who take drag seriously — who are doing the art of drag — they take their gig seriously. Like, they are doing it for the art of drag. My passion is not in the art of drag, my passion is in music and in burlesque and in different art forms. For me it’s not about being the best drag queen, it’s about being the best burlesque artist and the best musician I can be. There’s people where drag is their art; it’s their passion. For me, drag is a medium, an art, and also a representation of my gender identity. When I get in drag, I realize lately that I want to tone it down and just be more me, because I don’t feel the need to hide behind a character. Also, I don’t want to offend anyone. A lot of people have gotten offended by me saying that — they’re like, “But you were on Drag Race” — and I’m like, yeah. I still do drag, but I just don’t do drag in the same way as other people. It doesn’t make me punk or different. Like, there’s other people who use drag as a medium. Bianca Del Rio doesn’t do anything that drag queens do.

D: Yeah.

A: Would I consider her a drag queen? Yes, but would I say she’s just a drag queen? No, she’s more of a comedian.

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

D: It shows in your work, too, because your work is very personal. You can tell when you are rapping your lyrics that they actually come from you, and they are not any sort of like industry clichés or anything. These are your real experiences, and it really does come through in your work.

A: Absolutely, for me everything I’ve done, I’ve written myself. I didn’t have help from anyone. I am just sharing my personal experience, and like people don’t understand. Especially I think it’s something Drag Race fans are not used to. They’re not used to someone doing something serious, like something very personal. I remember when season nine came out, and people were saying Sasha Velour takes herself “too seriously,” — what, because this is more than just, you know, a character for some people? For some people, this is life, like this is who they are. This is who they are. This is their real actual self-expression… who wants people to criticize their self-expression?

D: Yeah, exactly — instead of Aja being a “drag character,” Aja is you; you are Aja.

A: Exactly. So, you know, it took me a long time to realize that these people do not understand that. They think that Aja is like my drag is. Like I’m trying to do something. I’m not trying to do anything. I’m just trying to be me, and trying to express myself. When I went on Drag Race, it was never to like, “Oh my God, I want to be the best drag queen,” or to be held to the standard of anybody. I wanted a platform where I can be me, and people would, you know, love me for who I am. 

D: Yeah, because I’ve noticed that on Instagram, you’ll post photos in a more traditionally male drag and then more traditionally female drag, and then also a very genderqueer drag, all as Aja. So, it’s really revolutionizing the way that people think about the identity of different drag performers. I commend you on that.

A: Thank you. I think that people need to broaden their spectrum for once. I think anybody can do drag. I hate this idea that drag is only for men, or for like only certain genders on the spectrum. Anybody can do drag.

D: Yeah.

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

A: I feel like there’s a lot of ignorance and there’s a lot of misunderstanding. Which is ironic, because everybody just wants to be accepted. Everyone just wants peace, and wants to be equal. It’s funny the mean things that these people will say. I love people who support everyone. I love people who don’t judge based on race, and based on things that have nothing to do with a person.

D: Yeah, I have seen some of your Instagram lives and it seems like you definitely are one of the leaders in calling out the ignorance within the fanbase, and in some of the performers themselves.

A: Oh, absolutely! I feel like I would never like go up to someone in person and be like, “Oh my God, I hate you,” or whatever, because nobody goes up to you in person and says mean things. There’s something about the magic of anonymity online. I think like every fan base has that, first of all. Like, Drag Race fans are not the only ones who do that. Music industry fans do it, too. Everyone does it. Personally, at this point I have PR; I have good people who run my social media. What we do is, we’ll go on and delete all the bad comments. We’ll just be like, “Hey, these people are clearly assholes, we are just going to delete the comments.” When people compare my art, which is literally just me, to other people? Delete. When people say negative things about me or my family or my friends? Delete or block. I don’t have time to debate why someone is a terrible person or not. 

D: I want to end on a couple of light hearted questions. Who are some of your own favorite musical artists?

A: Oh, wow. I have a lot of favorite musical artists. I listen to a lot of rap and since I do rap music. My two favorite rappers are Nicki Minaj and Tyler the Creator. I think Tyler the Creator’s a genius, under-appreciated queer rapper, who literally scammed his way into the industry — got the respect of everyone — and then was like, “I’m gay”. People were like, “What?” 

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

Then, Nicki Minaj is just so intelligent. Everything she writes… you can tell it’s something she wrote, because it’s always on the same flow and it never changes — and it’s always referential. She’s just so smart, and it’s inspiring because she also comes from New York. She’s a perfect description of someone who can be colloquial, but then be very educated. Even in the recent events, like the fashion week stuff, I thought she handled it well. I think that she was smart in the way she played it out.

D: Last question: I love your tattoos, do you have a favorite?

A: My favorite tattoo would have to be my Clefable and Gengar tattoo. It’s a Pokémon tattoo. I have people spot that one anywhere. 

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

D: Oh, yes! I came up with that question looking through your Instagram today, and that was my favorite that I saw on your arm.

A: Everybody’s! It’s everybody’s favorite; it’s my favorite, too.

D: It’s awesome. Thank you so much for speaking with me again.


Photography by Dash Jones

Aja, now changed into their lingerie drag and a sexy, flowy wig, proceeded to film several sensual takes in bed with model Derek Richmond. Director Assaad Yacoub sat fully engaged behind his monitors, shouting words of encouragement to Aja to bring out the best in their on-screen performance. Once the scene was finished filming, the crew and cast of extras prepped for a rooftop night scene shoot, and Assaad and I had a chance to speak one-on-one.


Assaad Yacoub

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

Derek: So, it’s really awesome to interview you, because I love your work for the different top RuPaul’s Drag Race queens doing their music videos, and also your film Cherry Pop.

Assaad Yacoub: Oh yes, you watched Cherry Pop! I love that, thank you.

D: It was so funny and it had a good message.

A: Thank you so much.

D: So, what is your favorite part of collaborating with Aja?

A: Aja specifically is my favorite, is one of my favorite queens, to work with. I would say Aja, and Bob the Drag Queen are my top two queens I love working with, because they come with fully realized idea, and they put a lot of effort and money into their videos. They know the value of a music video. They are not just like, “Here is $5,000 and make magic.” They understand the value that goes into music videos, so I really enjoy working with them. That’s been the best experience, specifically Aja.

D: Definitely, because I know that this is actually like your fourth music video that you’ve done together, right?

A: This is the fifth one if you consider “Clack,” like the first time I’ve met Aja. “C.L.A.T.,” “Brujeria,” “Finish Her!,” “I Don’t Wanna Brag,” and now this one.

D: Wow, yeah.

A: Yeah, I can’t believe it. The first time I met Aja was on the set of “C.L.A.T..” I had not met them prior to that, and we just bonded right away.

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

D: They had mentioned that when I spoke to them. That’s cool.

A: That was a great experience.

D: So, for this video in particular, can you walk me through your concept for it?

A: Yes, so for this one, as we see, we are trying to do a pro-trans rights video, and non-binary video as well. So, it’s kinda of a looser concept. It starts with Aja waking up with a nightmare in bed. The nightmare is one of their songs “Bitch I’m Kawaii.” For some reason, Aja doesn’t like that song — and it’s their own song — so they made it a joke about it, and made it into a nightmare in the video. Then it goes into “Ayo Sis,” where we cut between Aja as a boy with a very famous trans model and activist, Cassandra James; she’s awesome, great actress, a lot of fun to work with. Then it cuts to Aja in drag with a guy (Derek Richmond), and kinda playing with gender. I really like that.

D: That’s really cool. What kinds of visual techniques did you use to evoke emotions and portray that concept?

A: One of the things we’re using visually is having a bunch of people come in at some point to form the lines of the trans flag and the nonbinary flag in the background with their shirts. That’s kind of a way that we want to show the message in the background of what’s happening in the foreground. Then we did Aja kissing Cassandra when Aja’s out of drag, and in drag kissing the guy, to show that you can love whoever you want at the same time. I like that message.

D: Cherry Pop was fantastic. Do you have any plans for more movies at all?

A: Actually, we are trying to do a TV show, but I haven’t had the time because of all of the music videos I’ve been doing. We finished writing — my writer and I, because I don’t write — so I work with writer and he wrote the pilot. It’s similar to Cherry Pop. We’re not calling it Cherry Pop, we’re calling it Friends of Dorothy. A nod to the olden days when gay guys could identify each other as “friends of Dorothy.” And so that’s happening now, and I don’t know, we have no further details. We are not moving forward with that because of these music videos. So, I hope to come up with something soon in that theme.

D: For fans who know you through these collaborations with the top talent from the Drag Race world and from Cherry Pop, could you give a bio of yourself for us to get to know you a little bit more?

A: I was born and raised in Dubai. I grew up there until I was 18 — and originally I’m from Lebanon though, I’m Lebanese — then, I moved to Lebanon when I was 18, for a couple of years. I pretty much moved to New York when I was 20. Never been to New York, and I was like, “I’m fucking going to New York.” That’s when I met Bob the Drag Queen actually, eight years before he was called Bob. His name was Kittin Withawhip. I was going to his shows illegally, with a fake ID, and it was a lot of fun. That’s my first experience with drag. I saw Bob and I was like, I need to put you in a movie. That’s how Cherry Pop came about, [originally] as a short film. Then we made it into a feature. So that’s kind of my little bio to America.

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

D: Do you live here in the Los Angeles area now?

A: Yes, I’ve been in LA for seven years now. I love it here.

D: Do you have any other music video collaborations coming up with anyone?

A: Yeah, I have a ton. I don’t know if I can talk about all of them, but I do have some I feel like I can talk about. Mayhem Miller, Trinity Taylor, and then I just booked a drag trio in New York called Stephanie’s Child. I literally just booked them now. They performed with Jessie J on The Voice and stuff like that. So, they are doing pretty well, too. So I don’t just work with Ru girls, I’m open to working with everyone, which is my goal. It’s not just work with girls who are on Drag Race. I just like to work with talented people.

D: Definitely.

A: Oh, and Kelly Clarkson. I booked Kelly Clarkson’s music video. I forgot about that one. (Gestures) I should slide that one in.

D: Oh my God! That is awesome.

A: That’s going to be fun.

D: Is that from her current album (Meaning of Life)?

A: Yes, it’s from her current album.

D: I appreciate hearing that, because I’m a huge Kelly Clarkson fan. This new album is such a cool direction for her.

A: Oh, yeah! It’s amazing. I love the song they gave me, so I’m very excited to do it.

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

D: Obviously, when the queens get off of Drag Race — and some are not even on it — they have to create their own narrative, so what’s that like for you as a visual artist; to be able to help someone who may not otherwise be able to, with the technical and visual stuff, create their own narrative?

A: Narrative in the sense of their storyline in the video?

D: Yeah.

A: That happens a lot. Tatianna for example, when I just did her video, she called me up and was like, “Here’s the song, come up with whatever you want”. So, I try to come up with different ways to portray that drag queen. Like even Eureka, that was something similar we did. I’m like, let’s try something new with you. Like with Alexis Michelle, people are used to seeing her a certain way, and I was like, do a comedic video where people can see the lighter side of you. At the end of the day, that’s how you’re going to be portrayed — by how you’re portrayed in your video. You want to show a different side of yourself, if the way you’re portrayed on Drag Race sometimes isn’t the best. There are other ways to show people, “This is actually who I am,” so I think that’s the beauty of doing these videos. That’s why I love collaborating with them. I set out to come up with kooky ideas that help show different sides of these girls.

D: It seems like it’s such a one-on-one collaboration process.

A: One hundred percent.

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

D: You are working on an individual basis in these videos that you turn out. They each seem so unique, to the point where when I was researching for the interview, I had not realized you’d directed all of Aja’s music videos. They are all so different.

A: That’s good. I’m happy that’s the case. I hope that my style goes through all of them, but the goal is that each video is its own little story — its own little narrative, and it keeps changing and evolving — which I hope’s the goal with each video I do.

D: Did you do the Bebe Zahara Benet “Jungle Kitty” video?

A: Yes!

D: That was sickening! That was so much fun.

A: That was fun, that was a lot of fun. Bebe is awesome to work with. I really, really enjoyed working with her.

D: She’s from where I’m from, in Minneapolis.

A: Oh, nice!

D: She’s our hometown hero.

“Bitch I’m Kawaii / Ayo Sis” Music Video


Follow Aja on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Stream their music on Apple Music and Spotify.

What’s your favorite Aja song? Tweet me! @DerekPlease

Review: Taylor Swift Reinvents the Stadium Tour in Minneapolis

The singer-songwriter effortlessly redefines the type of show US Bank Stadium can house, with a mammoth pop concert that somehow still feels intimate.

This article is set to appear inside Issue 122 of Twin Cities Gay Scene magazine.

Photo: DerekPlease.com 

August 31, 2018

A giant video wall that can rearrange itself in over 30 ways. Four-story-tall inflatable snakes with glowing eyes. Fire eruptions from the top of the stage, bathing the stadium in heat. Taylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour was not your average Friday night at US Bank Stadium. The Minneapolis venue was packed with over 40,000 devoted fans, many dressed up in costume for the occasion.

If The 1989 World Tour found Taylor Swift perfecting her approach to an arena tour, the Reputation Stadium Tour finds Swift revolutionizing the stadium tour on her first try. The music and imagery had a darker vibe this time around, but Swift still kept things personal, despite the large increase in venue size. She took frequent pauses to connect with the crowd, confessing meanings behind tracks and giving speeches that segued into her next song selection. She teased the crowd before “Gorgeous,” asking them for a word that describes something that is more than beautiful. When they shouted the song’s title, she replied with a wink, “That’s the one!” 

Photo: DerekPlease.com

Her transition into “Delicate” was so smooth, I heard a fan say, “I see what you did there, Taylor.” It’s those clever details that make Taylor Swift concerts feel so natural and effortless. Whereas other pop acts get lost in the excess of their arena tour stages, Swift still commands full attention on a massive stadium stage composed of the aforementioned video wall, two T-shaped runways, and two separate b-stages. 

There were fun surprises, like Swift’s cats Meredith and Olivia popping up on the video wall. Or when comedian Tiffany Haddish appeared on the video screen to do “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone now” bit during “Look What You Made Me Do.” That performance was a standout, incorporating a giant see-saw platform that dancers balanced on as it tilted back and forth. 

With the grandiose stage and a visually inventive crew of interpretive backup dancers, Swift delivered dramatic, engaging performances of hits like “Look What You Made Me Do” and “End Game” that surpassed the best pop tours in recent memory. With its visual storytelling and massive set pieces, Taylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour is the most theatrical pop concert tour since Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour. 

Theatrical, but also movie-like in some ways. The video wall mainly displayed live closeup footage of Swift, which served as a way for fans in the nosebleed sections to see her reactions and intricate dance moves. The camerawork was above average, including special effects, dolly shots and 4K quality that made it feel like you were watching a concert DVD. Swift sang directly to the camera countless times throughout her set, giving everyone a chance to feel like they got some face time with her. Another way the experience felt DVD-like was the inclusion of behind-the-scenes featurettes, which played on the video wall before and after the show. 

Another cinematic touch was a gorgeous visual interlude featuring Swift performing an original poem, “Why She Disappeared.” The highly personal poem felt like a missing piece of the reputation album — it would have made a great spoken word interlude track on the LP.

img222222.jpg

"...the most

theatrical pop concert tour since Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour."

Musically, the show had a cohesive vibe, thanks to a majority of the reputation album track list being performed. But when Swift got in a gondola and flew over the crowd to a b-stage, a welcome shake-up came; opening acts Charli XCX and Camila Cabello joined Swift for a joyous, pure pop rendition of her US #1 hit “Shake It Off.” Once XCX and Cabello left the stage, Swift went into full-on singer-songwriter mode, performing a couple songs with just her guitar. 

Photo: DerekPlease.com 

Joan Jett’s classic anthem “Reputation” had blared over the loudspeakers just before the concert began. Released in 1980, the song that somehow still sounds fresh today. It made me wonder if Swift’s own reputation songs will stand that test of time. Swift answered that query in a variety of ways. First, by thanking the crowd for standing by her for 13 years and 25 shows in the local area. Swift also gave special thanks to fans for sticking with her for so long; she told the crowd she was moved to realize she isn’t just a passing phase in fans’ musical journey, but a permanent fixture. Finally, she proved great song craft is what makes songs timeless. Her b-stage acoustic version of reputation track “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” showed even her most current-sounding songs can be stripped back to basics and sound timeless. 

Photo: DerekPlease.com

She kept the “just me and a guitar” vibe going, prefacing her Minneapolis night one acoustic surprise song with a warning: it was written a long time ago. That didn’t stop most of the crowd from singing along upon realizing it was “Begin Again,” a tender and confessional country single from her 2012 album Red. 

Snippets and choruses from past country songs were infused into her stadium-rocking pop hits throughout the night, and these mashups were inspired. Whereas The 1989 World Tour gave its few country throwback songs pop and rock makeovers, Reputation Stadium Tour embraces the country versions to the immense joy of the crowd. One of the biggest roars of the night came after Swift nonchalantly referenced her career beginnings in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Swift returned to the main stage to perform more full-scale numbers with her band and dancers, including a standout performance of her country hit “Should’ve Said No,” which was mixed into a performance of her similarly-themed pop anthem “Bad Blood.” The country-pop infusions culminated in an epic performance of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” mashed up with the reputation standout “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” During “Nice Things,” the video wall transformed into a fancy hotel, which was blown to smithereens as Swift belted lyrics about ex-friends unworthy of her generosity. The imagery was evocative of how the tour itself is breaking the mold of what a stadium tour can be. Taylor Swift has proven that a stadium show should feel just as intimate as one of her Secret Sessions living room concerts — and can, if she wills it to be so. 

Opening Acts

Charli XCX

A beacon of pure pop energy, Charli XCX performed an electric set in a see-through holographic jumpsuit. XCX led the crowd through choreographed movement and cheers, effortlessly getting the party started. She also declared the stadium a safe space during a touching dedication to her LGBT fans. 

Her radio hits “Boom Clap,” “I Love It,” and “Fancy” had the US Bank Stadium crowd singing along to every word. She also played newer tracks like the glittering “Unlock It” and the dark, sultry hip-hop/pop hybrid “5 in the Morning.” The latter would sound at home on a playlist with tracks from Swift’s reputation album. 

Camila Cabello

Fresh off winning Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards, Camila Cabello walked on stage at US Bank Stadium wearing a custom-made Minnesota Vikings football jersey, belting her top ten-charting “Never Be the Same.” Joined by a live band and some free styling dancers, Cabello confessed she loves performing in Minneapolis-St. Paul. 

“You guys are a music city. There’s no crowd louder,” she said, smiling from ear to ear. “Any time I come to this city, the crowds are so loud.” 

Another personalized touch came when Cabello snuck in a musical tribute to Minneapolis’ own Prince. Cabello’s band mixed samples from Prince’s iconic hit “Kiss” into a dance break portion of her set. 

Performances of deep cuts from her debut album Camila stood out, proving she has more potential hits waiting on the sidelines. She closed out her charismatic set with her US #1 hit “Havana.” It was the perfect monster hit song to fully warm up the stadium crowd before the woman of the hour, Taylor Swift, emerged.


You can find upcoming dates to Taylor Swift's Reputation World Tour here.


What's your favorite Taylor Swift song? Tell me on social media: @DerekPlease on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat!