Monday, October 16, 2017

Billboard Top Ten: October 19, 1985

I've been spending a lot of late nights looking up old 80s music videos, and have found peak 80s to be in the 1984-1986 sweet spot. At this point the funk of the 70s had been completely erased, and Reagan's "morning in America" schtick was at its most popular. The top ten chart from this week in 1985 is just about as 80s as it gets.  On with the countdown!

10. Tears for Fears, "Head Over Heels"

By 1985 the post-punk British explosion and all that new wave jazz had evolved (or devolved, depending on your perspective) into a group like Tears for Fears. Their music was very poppy, but still personal and lyrically more deep than the average top 40 fare. (That's probably the reason it made it onto the Donnie Darko soundtrack.) At the time I really liked it.

9. Sting, "Fortress Around Your Heart"


This is another song I really dug back in '85. People forget what a big deal Sting was at this point, his name iconic as the other one-name-wonders Madonna and Prince. His solo music was not even as close to being as good as The Police, but this song had a little magic in it. The grayscale video and vibe of the song reflected the renewed 80s Cold War situation. It's better than anything else Sting would manage in his solo career.

8. Mick Jagger and David Bowie, "Dancing In The Street"


Ohhhhhh boy. This song and video has now become shorthand for lameness. It was a song put together for charity, so I can't be too critical, but man, this is a classic case of being too big to be told no. The 80s butt rock behind this track is as obviously tacky as the color of Mick's shirt and the print of whatever the hell Bowie is wearing. At this point Bowie's momentum from "Let's Dance" had crashed and Jagger was inexplicably feuding with Keef and trying to pass himself off as a solo artist. If you ever want to show anyone how bad the 80s could be, just show them this.

7. Dire Straits, "Money For Nothing"


Here's a song in that genre new to the 80s: songs that became megahits due to their videos. Gather 'round, kiddos, and I will tell you of a time when the sub-screen saver animation of this video was a revelation to us oldsters. The song and video were so meta because they were also commentaries on the ubiquity of MTV. The use of the awful word "faggot" in this song, even in a satirical context makes it difficult to listen to these days. That word was still flung around with ubiquity back then, so much so that on the playground I had no clue that it was a very specific slur. As bad as shit is nowadays, I would never want to go back to 1985.

6. John Mellencamp, "Lonely Ol' Night"


Back in my rural Nebraska homeland growing up there was a holy trinity of contemporary rock music: Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and John Mellencamp. The latter's rural Midwestern origins oozed through his music and really resonated with me. Even his minor hits got saturation airplay on local radio. This was one of my favorites, since it captured the feeling of being in a small town with no action and trying to find that spark of human connection.

5. Jan Hammer, "Miami Vice Theme"


Oh God did I love this song and this show. It was on Saturday night, so I could stay up late enough and watch it. It just made me feel so mature and cool just to be associated with it. The show also had one of the great all time opening credits sequences, which makes Miami look like the hippest place on earth, at least in 1985. The show and synthesizers were so cool in 1985 that its theme could make the top ten. Funny how what we thought was the future is now such an obvious relic of the past.

4. Ready For The World, "Oh Sheila"

I had totally forgotten about this song. The drum and synth sound is pure Prince. I even had to look up if this group was produced by him, but nope. It's a pretty clear version of "drive it like you stole it," but I think it still works.

3. Stevie Wonder, "Part-Time Lover"


This one is sultry and bouncy like a Hall and Oates song. It's a weird kind of thing where the man who originated the sound is imitating the people who imitated him. It's a decent pop song, but pretty lame compared to what Wonder was doing in the 70s. At least he's not embarrassing himself a la Jagger and Bowie.

2. Whitney Houston, "Saving All My Love For You"

I know it's not popular to say this, but Whitney Houston was one of the great wasted talents in musical history. She had an amazing voice, and would often use it in thrillingly creative and surprising ways. It was a shame that her voice was paired with consistently boring, insipid songs and arrangements. If only she had come up in the 60s and 70s, and not in the 80s, which was a dark decade for the poppier side of soul music.

1. a-ha, "Take On Me"

Oh boy, here it is. This right here just might be the most 80sed thing that ever 80sed. The keyboard hook alone makes this a true relic of its time. How in the hell did a Norwegian synth pop band hit the top of the charts? By making perhaps the most bitchin' emotional roller coaster of a video yet seen. Once MTV could take a band like a-ha to the top of the charts the mighty M was truly king. How long did that reign last? It's hard to say, but it as long as it did, it never captured the zeitgeist quite like in did in 1985.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Old Dad's Records 20 (Tom Petty)


This week I hit episode 20 on the Old Dad's Records Podcast. As I do with every fifth episode, I discussed a record of mine that's actually highly regarded and well-known. The choice this week was pretty obvious: Tom Petty. As I discuss in episode, I was a fan of his from around the time I was listening to popular music seriously. As I got older, I also realized what a great band the Heartbreakers were, and talk a lot about that, too.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

America's Year Of Living Dangerously


Events in the past year in the United States have helped me understand events in other countries I used to have a hard time wrapping my mind around. Having grown up in a stable democracy that had maintained the same Constitution for two centuries, it took effort to understand how people reacted to events in less stable countries.

Now, there are a lot of things I get. When there was a military coup in Egypt during Arab Spring, I was shocked at the popular support for it. How could the military taking over possibly be a happy event for people who wanted more of a voice? Now I realize that when it is a choice between an authoritarian trainwreck and a military takeover that many people might prefer the latter. This is the first time in my lifetime in America that I've thought this was a possibility. Hearing what I am hearing about Mattis and Kelly's responses to working with Trump I wonder if the praetorian guard scenario will play out.

Another thing that makes sense to me now is election boycotting. In many countries supporters of the candidate opposing the leader boycott the election when they feel that it isn't fair. I've usually wondered about this, since it seems like giving up before the battle is fought. Now I get it. If an election is rigged, boycotting it undercuts the legitimacy of the government. This action also helps rally and solidify the opposition. With gerrymandering and voter suppression rigging our system, a boycott in the worst hit areas does not sound like a far-fetched idea.

I am having these thoughts, of course, because I can feel America's democratic stability crumbling. Our president is threatening to shut down critical news outlets. In many states the vote is suppressed and districts drawn to ensure a Republican victory. The president is using his pardon power to forgive political cronies. Meanwhile little to nothing of substance is being done to stop this. Before long I predict we will see the kinds of events we normally associate with "troubled" nations. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Life During Wartime


I got today off from work, but my wife did not, and my kids are in school. Because our dog passed away recently, this meant I was going to be home totally alone today, something that I had not yet experienced in this house.

Initially, I barely noticed. I spent the early morning grading papers and banging out letters of recommendation, but after awhile I needed to take a break. At that moment I started to think long and hard about the state of the world. Nowadays when there is nothing to distract me (which is rare with my hectic schedule) I am paralyzed with despair over the state of this country.

At that point I realized I needed to get to the gym. I exercise only enough to avoid a heart attack and to balance out my love of bad food, but the endorphins are a nice side benefit. While I tried to listen to my favorite podcast while I was on the cardio machine, my eyes could not help looking up to the bank of TVs hanging from the ceiling. Since the advent of streaming I've pretty much stopped watching anything live on TV that isn't sports or TCM or Maddow or Rockford Files re-runs on MeTV. I had forgotten about the awful, disgusting horror of daytime television. There were insipid talk shows, dumb game shows, infotainment local news, lamebrain cable news, and worst of all, sports opinion shows. All I kept thinking about is how our country is being run by a homophobic, transphobic, racist, sexist, poor-hating, administration headed by an ignorant, lazy, traitorous, kleptocrat.

My mind kept going back to the DREAMers who are being used as hostages by Trump to extract his stupid fucking wall. I kept going back to the fact that each day brings evidence of how Russian intelligence manipulated our soulless internet companies to help put this horrible person in power. I kept thinking about the invisible people in Puerto Rico fighting for survival. I thought most of all about how our president is treating threats of nuclear war as a reality TV show.

Looking at that bank of atrocious television, it was clear to me more than ever that Trump is the perfect byproduct of this nation's worst tendencies. In other nations when autocrats try to grab power the people take over the main square. Here in America we have immersed ourselves so thoroughly in the cesspool of our empty, soulless consumerist nightmare that we are actually comfortable with a man like Trump in office. This goes even for those who don't like him, who chew their popcorn as they watch yet another episode of the Trump Show on Twitter, shouting their objections into the void but sitting on the couch rather than doing anything real.

Things are bad. They are getting worse. I have zero confidence that we are prepared for that. I feel like yelling out, like a GI from a Hollywood film from 1944, "Hey, don't you know there's a war on?!?"

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Nostalgia Rock And The Reagan Dusk


I've talked a lot on here about what I call the "Reagan Dawn," that cultural period from 1979-1982 where the transvaluation of values in favor of neoliberalism took place. I have also begun to theorize what I call the Reagan Dusk, which I date roughly from 1987 to 1991. This was a time when the promises of the Reagan Era appeared to have been false, and when the end of the Cold War forced a reckoning with the consequences of valuing missiles over people. There were contradictory forces to this self-reflection, such as the Gulf War and the peaceful collapse of communism. While these events seemed to say that America had triumphed, the social problems of the time appeared to expose them as Pyrrhic victories. (Neil Young's searing "Keep On Rocking In The Free World" and Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" both hit in 1989 and were calls to action after years of neoliberal regression.)

Culturally, this was a time when the day-glo of the 80s had muted into earth tones, primary colors, and baggy sweaters. (Watch the original Twin Peaks and look at the clothes and you'll know what I am talking about.) Rap music was confronting the realities of American life under Reagan, but the only acts to get played on the radio were the likes of MC Hammer, Young MC, and (yikes) Vanilla Ice. There was too a growing underground rock scene, but it was far left of the dial. Culturally the nineties started in late 1991, once "Smells Like Teen Spirit" dropped and NWA's second album went to number one.

During the Reagan Dusk, things in the rock music world were more confused. Hair metal was the most popular genre, but was despised by anyone over the age of fourteen with five working brain cells to rub together. The rest of us, searching for "authenticity" fed on a diet of what I would call "Nostalgia Rock." This was music rooted in the 60s, often by musicians from that era, which consciously or not opposed the values of that era to the ones of the late Reagan years. Some of this music was purely nostalgic (like George Harrison's "When We Was Fab"). Sometimes the artist simply played original songs in the mode of older forms (like Chris Isaak.)

The curtain-raiser on this phenomenon was the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup formed out of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers touring with Bob Dylan. Jeff Lynne had produced friend George Harrison's hit Cloud Nine, and Roy Orbison somehow got roped in, too. Petty was the only artist of the now, the others were long in the tooth. This band of geezers cut some hits on their first record in 1988, including "Handle With Care," which still holds up. (I love the contrast between Dylan's late period quack and Orbison's soaring opera tenor.) It also happened to be the beginning of a Bob Dylan renaissance, as evidenced by 1989's Oh Mercy. This Wilburys supergroup album, which might have been dismissed in a time less starved for authenticity, went multiplatinum and won a Grammy.

Soon the deluge followed. In 1989 a bunch of sixties artists hit the road, including bands that had broken up, like the Who. The Rolling Stones toured behind Steel Wheels, inevitably prompting "steel wheelchairs jokes." (The joke's on us, since it's almost thirty years later and the Stones are still rolling.) There was a lot of Boomer nostalgia involved, but also a lot of curiosity by younger people (like myself) who rightly thought "Paint It, Black" far superior to "Cherry Pie." The Stones' current music was mediocre at best, but Steel Wheels was showered with accolades and sold very well.

Other legends managed to find their way back into the charts in this late 80s era, like George Harrison, Roy Orbison with "You Got It", and the aforementioned Neil Young.  Hell, even the damn Grateful Dead had a big hit with "Touch of Grey." Younger artists who borrowed from older styles also broke through. REM became the sole band of the pre-"Nevermind" underground to surface into mainstream MTV and radio play with a Byrds-y sound rooted in the sixties. Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever spawned several hits also with a very retro Byrds-y sound that departed from the more electronic, progressive music on songs like "Don't Come Around Here No More" and "You Got Lucky." Chris Isaak's pompadour, reverby guitar, and Orbison-esque vocals made him look and sound like a lost rock and roller who had fallen asleep in 1962 and woken up in 1990. The Black Crowes emerged big time in 1990 with a sound deeply rooted in early 70s southern rock and had a hit with a cover of Otis Redding's "Hard To Handle."

By 1990-1991 things got meta, and songs like "Black Velvet" and "Walking In Memphis" began to comment on the music of the past and its authenticity. Alannah Myles' "Black Velvet" was about Elvis while never saying his name. The song itself was a sultry blues, rather than Elvis' rockabilly, but recalled a music that could change the world. In 1990, that felt like a long time ago. Marc Cohn's "Walking In Memphis" made all kinds of references to American soul, gospel, blues, and rock n' roll but the song itself was built around a catchy piano hook that was very 1991. Cohn's love for this music is pretty obvious in the lyrics and his passionate reading of them.

But living in this time the years and years of nostalgia for a past music that mattered wore thin on youngsters like myself. I wanted my own music, and had been digging to find it. Public Enemy, Ice Cube, NWA, and Eric B and Rakim all energized me far more than what I was hearing on the radio. The music that mattered to me and felt important was not rock music. That changed in the autumn of 1991, when Metallica's black album and Nirvana's Nevermind dropped. Suddenly punk and metal were going from the losers and glue sniffers to the mall. Even the excesses of Guns n Roses' Use Your Illusion albums (released in late 1991) felt like a jolt to a rock scene desperately in need of one. Pretty much from that point forward the aping of the 60s lost its charm, and the new music made by the legends was immediately cordoned off into the geezer rock pastures. (Except for Neil Young and Tom Petty, who put out great stuff in this era.) For a teenager desperate for HIS generation to have its own musical heroes, it was a kind of deliverance, and marked the end of the Reagan Dusk and the dawn of the nineties.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Get Ready To Head Into The Fire



Two weeks before inauguration I wrote probably my most pessimistic piece for this blog: "Into The Fire":

"In a little over two weeks, Donald J Trump will be the next president of the United States, and I fear that we don't stand a chance. In conversations I've had with those who voted for Trump, both online and in person, they simply do not have any concerns or reservations about what this man has done or anything he is about to do. In most cases they are people who want their version of America to triumph, and that's a version where gays are in the closet, immigrants deported, bosses control their workers, people of color are invisible, and women are in the kitchen. If Trump has to break a few laws and break a few heads for that to happen, they simply do not care."

I stand by that because Republicans have stood by him. His corruption, unstable behavior with nukes, and championing of Nazis has not swayed them, which means that nothing will. As long as the Republicans control Congress, his agenda will win, and due to suppression, gerrymandering, and Democratic ineptitude, I will bet money it will continue after next November.

Right now, though, it looks like we are headed into the center of the fire. The Trump administration is intentionally destroying Obamacare, after being unable to pass new legislation. The Iran agreement is about to be torn up. And today, the president joked about the possibility of a coming nuclear war with North Korea. He called this "the calm before the storm," which means that he is planning on unleashing a storm. 

After being unable to get a legislative win, and after he has been losing advisors and cabinet members left and right, this famously impetuous and lonely man is deciding to go it alone, without any annoying restraints. He is psychologically tormented by the need to "win," and he will do whatever he can to get those "wins." He burning desire to destroy anything built by Obama means he will trash the health care marketplaces and tear up the treaties that his predecessor signed. Perhaps he will get his "win" by starting and winning a war. Isn't that the ultimate presidential "win"?

Things have been bad. They are about to get a lot worse. I want you to ask a question: what am I going to DO about it? That's a question not enough people have been asking.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

After Las Vegas, We STILL Need To Talk About The Dysfunctions Of White Masculinity

The movie Targets from 1968 may be the most prophetic in history

Sunday night I was thinking to myself about mass shootings, and about how we live in a society whose cruelty, lack of community, and worship of empty consumerism make it fertile ground for such things once easy access to firearms is put in place. I was thinking about this specifically in terms of white men. I know so many fellow white men who are middle class and seemingly doing okay for themselves who have his inexplicable nihilism. They seem obsessed with tearing a system down that benefits them, driven by intense resentments that they can't articulate. I sensed this nihilism in some of the folks I know who voted for Trump. "At least he will shake things up!" is easy to say when you're not the one being put in front of the firing squad. 

Sunday night I was also thinking about Puerto Rico, and the cruelty of a president and a nation so indifferent to the suffering of fellow Americans. I was remembering my time in Germany, and that as many things I did not like about German society, at least there was a sense of common good. Trump is the avatar of the worst of this country, its crass materialism and solipsistic selfishness. Those values are very powerful, and it is worth noting that they resonate especially with white men.

In any case, I went to bed Sunday night, exhausted but ready to face the week. I woke up Monday and immediately saw a news alert about Las Vegas. It freaked me out a little that I seemed to have had a premonition the night before. This shooting is, of course, the result of America failing to face many of its problems. One of the biggest is the dysfunction of white masculinity. I wrote the following essay in 2012 after Newtown. I am posting it again because every single word is just as relevant now as it was then.

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Whenever a horrible event like the massacre in Newtown takes place, we try to find ways to explain it. This is often a futile exercise, because many people merely superimpose their larger beefs with society onto these events, rather than examining them with any real analytical and factual framework.  Hence, we have people like Louie Gohmert saying the teacher should have had her own assault weapon, or Mike Huckabee lamenting the loss of God in public schools.  We should be very careful of monocausal explanations that oversimplify things.  There are a lot of factors at play in the Newtown massacre, from the perpetrator's mental state to the availability of semi-automatic weapons.  However, I would like to echo others out there in the blogosphere who want to examine the role of white masculinity in all of this.

Of course, there have been other mass shootings in other countries, and the worst such shooting in this country was perpetrated by a Korean student.  That being said, this country has witnessed the lion's share of mass shootings, and disproportionate seventy percent of the shooters have been white men.  I hardly think the connection is coincidental.  Ever since the Aurora tragedy this summer, I have been contemplating this issue, trying to connect the dots to explain the connection between white masculinity and mass shootings.  I finally feel like I have some speculations worth sharing.

Masculinity more generally in this society is defined to a great extent by violence and control, and violence used as a means of maintaining control.  I have long been amazed and appalled by how many public figures in this country who have abused their wives and girlfriends have been allowed to stay on the pedestal.  That sad fact is to me evidence that masculine control through violence is implicitly accepted as legitimate in America.  Action movies predominate at the box office, and the orchestrated violence of the NFL is America's most popular sport.

Furthermore, white men in this country are taught that they are the masters of their own destiny, and are usually not confronted with the same limitations of possibility that men of color are.  When white men fail, an experience our society gives them few resources to confront,  they often lash out at those they hold responsible, or turn inward and commit suicide.  Most mass shooters seem to want to do both, as Adam Lanza did. 

The completely atomized nature of white middle class society contributes as well.  Shooters are usually described as "loners," men disconnected from others and hence unable to empathize with the human beings they kill.  We are an increasingly individualized society, which means that those mentally unstable, frustrated white men with access to deadly weapons are so rarely stopped before they kill.  They sit on the margins, alone, without any kind of cohesive social structure to bring them in.  Adam Lanza had stopped going to school and interacted with few outside his home, Eric Harris was able to plan his rampage in a home where his parents took evidently little interest in his doings, James Holmes had been expelled from his university and lived alone in a city far from home.  While atomization is occurring in all groups of American society today, in middle class, white culture it has probably been the most egregious and damaging.

We have a situation where white men are socialized to be the masters of their fate and able to use violence to maintain control over their lives.  These same men lack the tools to handle adversity, and are often left to their individual resources, even if they are mentally disturbed.  When some of the most mentally unstable of these men experience soul-shattering setbacks and are given access to semi-automatic weapons, we can only expect the worst.  We need to educate young men (especially white men) to not see violence as the answer to their problems, or to phantasize violent solutions.  We need to equip them with the tools to withstand failure, and to keep the more troubled of their number from slipping through the cracks.  Last, we need to talk seriously and openly about the nature of American white masculinity, and stop pretending that it isn't problematic.