One-named singer with 2019 hit Without Me / TUE 5-11-21 / Twitter thumbs-up informally / Vehicles in some tabloid photos / Dew Drop historic New Orleans nightclub / 2012 Grammy winner for Channel Orange

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Constructor: Kevin Patterson

Relative difficulty: Medium (or harder, depending on how good your knowledge of contemporary pop music is)

THEME: LOW-KEY (66A: Casual ... or a hint to the answers to the five starred clues) — five long two-words Downs have a keyboard "key" as their second (or, spatially, "low") word:

Theme answers:
  • FIRE ESCAPE (3D: *Steps taken in an emergency?)
  • BIRTH CONTROL (21D: *The pill, e.g.)
  • OPEN TAB (25D: *Running bill at a bar)
  • STORAGE SPACE (10D: *What closets and attics provide)
  • FIRST SHIFT (30D: *Nine to five, at a factory)
Word of the Day: HALSEY (47D: One-named singer with the 2019 #1 hit "Without Me") —

Ashley Nicolette Frangipane (/ˌfrænɪˈpɑːni/; born September 29, 1994), known professionally as Halsey (IPA/ˈhɔːlzi//ˈhɑːlzi/), is an American singer and songwriter. Gaining attention from self-released music on social media platforms, she was signed by Astralwerks in 2014 and released her debut EPRoom 93, later that year.

Halsey's debut studio album Badlands (2015) reached no. 2 on the US Billboard 200. Her second album Hopeless Fountain Kingdom (2017) topped the chart, and her third album Manic (2020) peaked at number two. She has had two no. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, "Closer", a collaboration with The Chainsmokers, and "Without Me". The single "Bad at Love" reached the top-five. 

Halsey has sold over one million albums. She is noted for her distinctive singing voice. Her awards and nominations include four Billboard Music Awards, one American Music Award, one GLAAD Media Award, an MTV Video Music Award, and two Grammy Award nominations. She was included on Time magazine's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2020. (wikipedia)

• • •

My path to the revealer here was so weird and unexpected, and I think it really added to my overall solving pleasure today. I almost always start in the NW and then solve in a wave, working crosses from answers I already have (instead of jumping around the grid). This is especially true with early-week puzzles, which tend to be easy, which means I don't get stuck, which means I don't *have* to go jumping around the grid to regain traction. Usually this work-the-crosses habit keeps me pretty tightly contained in one section of the grid at a time, but today, because the themers are vertical, I went zooming to the bottom of the grid very early on, and what do you think I found there? That's right, the "key" to the whole thing. Just sitting there at the bottom of the grid. 

Not sure why I decided to check the "L" cross on BIRTH CONTROL instead of heading back to the NW, but I'm really glad I did. Stumbling into the revealer like this absolutely maximized my delight. First of all, I just like LOW-KEY, all on its own, having nothing to do with the theme. It is a common enough adjective, but it feels fresh because the term has had something of a colloquial surge lately, both as an adjective and (more novelly) as an adverb (e.g. "I LOW-KEY hate him!"). "LOW-KEY" is featured in this incredibly stupidly-titled article, "24 phrases millennials use all the time but no one else gets." So I regular-key liked it. But then to look over, see ESCAPE and CONTROL, and not only grasp the theme immediately, but notice that LOW-KEY was crossing one of the very "keys" it was talking about—that the CONTROL "key" was in fact the key to my seeing LOW-KEY in the first place—all of this meant that the revealer landed in a way that very few revealers land: with a genuine, multi-layered aha moment: "oh ... Oh! ... OK, wow, cool." Thankfully, the rest of the puzzle was strong enough that I never lost the very good vibe created by my early LOW-KEY discovery.

The only let-down for me was FIRST SHIFT, which obviously, screamingly, should've been NIGHT SHIFT. The ghost of NIGHT SHIFT haunts this puzzle. It is the much much better, more vivid, more familiar phrase, and it is very angry that it got killed off. But if you try to swap FIRST for NIGHT, you will discover very quickly *why* it got killed off. If you tear everything out, back to STORAGE SPACE (which is a themer and thus can't be torn out), and then try to refill the grid with NIGHT SHIFT in place ... you can't. Well, you'd have to keep tearing, past BLACK SEA and all the way to god knows where. Because PESCI would become P-H-- and only PSHAW fits that pattern. And aside from being bad fill, PSHAW leaves you with -S-K where PERK now stands, and you can see how limited you are there, and so on and so on. Basically, FIRST SHIFT is disappointing relative to NIGHT SHIFT, but not half as disappointing as the grid itself would be had you tried to force NIGHT SHIFT to work. So you just make your peace with FIRST SHIFT and hope that NIGHT SHIFT doesn't seek revenge somehow.

The one problem I can see here, from an ordinary older-solver perspective, is the proper-noun crossing of HART and HALSEY. It's HALSEY who's gonna flummox a lot of people today. The majority of older solvers (a huge segment of the solving population) will not have heard of her. I don't know what I mean by "older" exactly, but let's just say I'm Gen X and barely know her. Or, rather, I know her name well enough, but only as a name. No context. No specifics. She's a popular singer. That's all I got. I can guarantee you that the majority of solvers older than I are going to have far less of a clue. Which is not a big deal, she's clearly famous enough to be in the puzzle, it's just that you've got to watch all of the crosses on her name. Now Kevin HART is much more famous (I think?) than HALSEY, so he's probably a fair cross for HALSEY's not-guessable "H"—but of the HALSEY crosses, HART is definitely the diciest, especially with a pretty bare-bones clue (47A: Stand-up comic Kevin). Crossing proper names is just dangerous. And when you cross two pop-culture names at a largely unguessable letter, you're definitely ruining someone's day somewhere. 

Again, both HALSEY and HART are plenty famous, and "H" is probably the best guess there if you are totally in the dark. Still, even though I knew both performers, that cross set off an alarm. You have to be careful when crossing names, especially when those names come from the same general ecosystem (here, contemporary popular entertainment). You don't want to leave *any* solvers hanging on a Tuesday. I haven't even mentioned FRANK OCEAN, who, like HALSEY, will be new to a sizable section of older-than-millennial solvers. His crosses all look fine, but if you've never heard of him before, you have my sympathy, especially since, if you don't know him, you almost certainly don't know HALSEY, which leaves you struggling for names twice. And on a Tuesday. Oh well. There have been tons of puzzles aimed at older solvers. Most of them, one might argue. A little correction is probably overdue.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld 

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Salad base similar to Swiss chard / MON 5-10-21 / NASCAR champion Hamlin / TV journalist Hill / Sherri's twin sister on the simpsons / Angsty music genre

Monday, May 10, 2021

Constructor: Zhouqin Burnikel

Relative difficulty: Medium (normalish Monday time) (3:05)

THEME: food coloring — last words of four themes are all plural noun colors:

Theme answers:
  • MANDARIN ORANGES (17A: Easy-to-peel citrus fruits)
  • EGG WHITES (22A: Main ingredients in meringue)
  • HASH BROWNS (28D: Crispy breakfast side dish)
  • BEET GREENS (30D: Salad base similar to Swiss chard)
Word of the Day: DENNY Hamlin (42A: NASCAR champion Hamlin) —
James Dennis Alan "DennyHamlin (born November 18, 1980) is an American professional stock car racing driver. He competes full-time in the NASCAR Cup Series, driving the No. 11 Toyota Camry and part-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, driving the No. 54 Toyota Supra, both for Joe Gibbs Racing. He has won 44 NASCAR Cup Series races, including the Daytona 500 in 20162019, and 2020. In 2020, he became the fourth person to win the race in back-to-back seasons, joining Richard PettyCale Yarborough, and Sterling Marlin. (wikipedia)
• • •

Nice to see Zhouqin Burnikel's name back on the byline again. Feels like it's been a while, and her work is always solid, often dazzling. I really like the mirror-symmetry grid here (feels unusual for a Monday), and the theme is simple but also deceptively tight—I didn't really notice the consistent food angle in the theme answers until I was going over them post-solve. A lesser puzzle would've been content to give you a bunch of plural noun colors, but this one gives you a much more focused grouping. This is low-key fancy, and I dig it. No bells and whistles—just a tight theme, clean fill, cool-looking grid. It's a model Monday in that regard. I found the puzzle very easy except (predictably) in and around the two proper nouns I didn't know. I try not to know *any* "TV journalists" if I can help it, so I needed most of the crosses to get ERICA (27D: TV journalist), she only slowed me down a little. The real slower-downer today was DENNY Hamlin, who, now that I mull his name over, I have probably heard or seen mentioned here and there on some ESPN-showing TV screen in the gym. DENNY Hamlin really sounds like a baseball pitcher ... who am I thinking of? I think I'm conflating DENNY McClain (Tigers pitcher who won absolutely every award imaginable in the late '60s) and Harry Hamlin, who did not play baseball that I am aware of (unless there was a friendly game among lawyers in "L.A. Law" that I missed). I had -ENN- and since the clue involved racing, I went straight to PENNA ... which is how I remembered the name of Brazilian Formula One legend Ayrton SENNA. Anyway, NASCAR and Formula One are very different. Not knowing the first or last letters of DENNY cost me a ton, since each of those letters was the primary means of descending into the bottom portion of the grid (The "D" is the front of DID LAPS (42D: Worked out in a pool) and the "Y" is the front of "YES, LET'S (43D: "We should do that!"), both of which I struggled with). In the end, still a pretty normal Monday time. 

I thought VISAGES was just a fancy word for faces, not the expressions *on* faces (46A: Facial expressions). "She made weird VISAGES at me" does not sound right. "Her face ran through a gamut of VISAGES." Can't make it work. I think it needs qualifiers like "sad visage" or "visage of cheerfulness." Oh well, it's not like I struggled there. Just kind of head-tilted and squinted at the clue. I also mis-Latined the plural of "stratus" at 9D: Low-altitude clouds (STRATI). I went with STRATA (plural of "stratum"), which still feels right. "Stratum" is a sheet or layer, whereas "stratus" is a sheet or layer ... of clouds. Roughly speaking. Let's see ... CABAL before CADRE (4D: Close-knit group) ... and that's it for trouble spots. Very nice amuse-bouche of a puzzle to start the week.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld 

P.S. Please allow me to extend my sympathies to all the LEN's out there who were really disappointed by the answer to 6D: Man's name hidden in "reliableness" (ELI)

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