Thursday, August 30, 2018

Sharp Objects And The Power Of Led Zeppelin

Prestige television has all kinds of genre conventions, from "complicated" leads to eerie opening credits. One of the more inconsistent is the use of popular music. I guess we can blame this on David Chase, who used music masterfully on The Sopranos. Few of his imitators are as good.

It'd been awhile since any TV show had used popular music in a way that excited me. Plenty, like Handmaid's Tale, were so ham-fisted and maladroit in their use of music that I had to stop watching them. However, Sharp Objects actually did something interesting.

There's a lot of Led Zeppelin, which was a shock since Page and Plant are very protective of having their music used by others. For a long time they would just not license anything. The very fact that they gave their assent was a sign that something good was happening here. After the last episode I thought that I would never be able to hear "Thank You" or "In The Evening" the same way again.

It's rare that a film or TV can alter the meaning of music that is so ingrained in the culture. Usually this happens with obscure songs that get used in things, allowing people to discover them by associating the song with the film or show. Quentin Tarantino has a strong track record of this kind of thing going back to "Stuck In The Middle With You" in Reservoir Dogs, for instance.

Jean-Marc Vallee pulled off this coup because he understands the deeper currents in Zep. On the surface level, Led Zeppelin are the avatars of cock rock, the unfortunate wellspring for every hair metal band in the 80s. (Those groups always name-checked Zeppelin in their interviews.) This is the Zeppelin of "Black Dog" and "Whole Lotta Love," a swaggering parody of male sexual desire.

However, there is another, better version of Zeppelin. Their best songs are less bombastic and more mysterious, evoking uncanny and spooky feelings. Even some of their most famous tracks, like "Kashmir," have this element. Vallee used one of their later tunes, "In The Evening," for this effect. While the lyrics are very cock rockish, the start is spooky, and the riff that comes crashing in has a loopy, disoriented quality to it. The uncannyness of Zeppelin is why I tend to listen to them the most in the spring and especially the fall, when you can feel the life of the earth draining away on a brisk October evening. This feeling is perfect for the very spooky and unsettling Sharp Objects.

Led Zeppelin had an infamous reputation in the 1970s, from the "shark incident" (look it up, if you dare) to Jimmy Page having a relationship with a teenaged girl. The misogynistic pig culture of 70s rock bands was turned up to 11 with them. However, Sharp Objects shows how the music itself is often very appealing to young women. It's a young woman who turns Camille on to their music. When I was in 10th grade it was a junior girl whose Zeppelin fandom inspired me to listen deeper than "Stairway to Heaven." The Led Zeppelin tribute album that came out in the mid-1990s had a couple of good tracks amidst the dross (as all tribute albums do), and Tori Amos' take on "Thank You" was probably the best.

That song was meant as a romantic dedication from a man to a woman, but in Sharp Objects it stands in for the relationship between Camille and the young woman who introduces her to Led Zeppelin in the mental hospital. "Thank You" probably works better as a hymn to deep friendship than romantic love, and that's how I'll hear it from now on.

That such a reinterpretation is possible is down to the depth of the source material. "Thank You" is almost fifty years old now, but hardly feels so. Sharp Objects stands as a reminder that Led Zeppelin made far more meaningful music than we often give them credit for.

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Long Shadow Of The 2000 Republican Primary

With the death of John McCain everyone seems to have an opinion, but few are doing much in the way of analysis. I am not much interested in "McCain good" and "McCain bad" takes. I've been thinking of why there has been so much public discussion of a six term Senator who was a fairly conventional conservative in his ideology. He was not a Senator like Henry Clay or Ted Kennedy, responsible for driving legislation forward. It's not just his military service, either since decorated vets like Daniel Inouye served in the Senate and were mourned at their passing, but not like this.

People who spend all their time on Twitter seem to forget that most people do not engage in politics on an ideological level. If you look at ever presidential election in my lifetime, the more charismatic candidate won every single time. Personalities and symbolism are often more important. I've met Sanders supporters who were not all that far to the left, for example. Those voters responded less to "Medicare for all" and more the anti-establishment message.

In 2000, John McCain was the most charismatic of the presidential candidates, but he did not even make it to the general election. The Republican establishment got fully behind George W Bush, including spreading racist rumors about McCain's adopted daughter from Bangladesh. A lot of McCain's charisma came from the enthusiasm of the media, who will always give the benefit of the doubt to someone who gives good copy. (This also explains Chris Christie.) If McCain, not Bush, had secured the nomination he would have won so handily against Gore that vote counting irregularities would not have been necessary in Florida.

Regardless of how real it was, McCain's aura of "straight talk" was popular with voters who had tired of the dissembling of Clinton and Gingrich, the two dominant figures of 1990s politics. It didn't matter that McCain was pretty much a garden-variety conservative, or that he was implicated in the Savings and Loan disaster as part of the Keating Five. He communicated more directly, something voters craved. That desire for "authenticity" also had a lot to do with the appeal of a different insurgent candidate: Donald Trump.

McCain's throttling at the hands of the Republican establishment in 2000 gave him the kind of goodwill that has led to the broad outpouring of emotion in the last few days. It has also obscured the more disturbing implications of that moment. For one, once McCain decided to run for president, he started caving to the Bush administration on its failed wars. The man who seemed to be the "maverick" willing to criticize members of his party started acting lobotomized. In 2008 he unleashed Sarah Palin, the John the Baptist of the Tea Party and Donald Trump, on the country.

While McCain did a monumentally important thing be refusing to vote for the repeal of the ACA, he mostly voted with the Trump administration. After all, he is a conventional conservative, and Trumpism is merely Reaganite conservatism with the white nationalism turned up to 11. When the president would commit some awful act, McCain would express "concern." This is the most he or other supposedly "maverick" Republicans like Sasse, Flake, and Corker ever seem to manage.

That reality hasn't been much represented in the current discourse after his death. I think this has to do with the long shadow of the 2000 election, and the belief that many Americans have that it is possible for our system to have a politics above politics. That, honestly, was a big part of Barack Obama's appeal in 2008. Many will deride this kind of politics as "centrist," but I am a believer in acknowledging political realities and working within them to win. If a left or progressive agenda is going to succeed, it needs to be wedded to the right symbolism and appeal to this longing for transcendence, no matter how unrealistic it is. In this country ideological appeals will only get you so far.

Friday, August 24, 2018

New School Year's Resolutions

Time to dispense some advice to myself

I am an educator, which means that I do not measure the passage of time by the calendar year, but by the school year. On Monday I go back for my first day of pre-school year preparation at the New York City independent high school where I teach. I feel it is always good to make a list of new school year's resolutions.

I Will Read Books On The Train During My Commute

I mostly did this last year, and it was great for my mental health. Too often I would scroll through Twitter or listen to podcasts, and when I got home at the end of the day, I was so exhausted that I could not read without passing out. Reading is by far the most meaningful spare time activity for me. If I do not have time to read I may as well not be alive. I am saving the podcasts for when I am doing household chores and the like, and hoping I can keep the Twitter use to rare moments.

I Will Lean Into Parenting When I Get Home From School

This is a big one. After enduring my commute after a long day of work, I am usually ready to just collapse into my chair and zone out. During the school year it feels like I barely see my children during the week, and I need to do more to make the most of our time together. This also keeps me from scrolling through social media or reading the news and getting depressed. Plus my kids need my support as they go into the first grade this year.

I Will Not Get Sucked Into Drama and Petty Bullshit In My Workplace

I have a great job and I teach with wonderful colleagues, but even in such fortunate circumstances there's going to be drama and petty bullshit. That's something that's just endemic to the American workplace. It can be even worse in the hothouse atmosphere of schools and universities with a lot of people used to being leaders of their classroom domain. Teachers also tend to have big personalities (part of the reason I love working with them.) Of course, this can lead to personality conflicts. In life I tend now to have a practice where I assume best intentions. In the rare case after giving someone the benefit of the doubt and they turn out to have bad intentions, I do my best to disengage and not get bogged down in their negativity.

I Will Try To Get Seven Hours of Sleep A Night

I resolve this every year, and rarely go through with it. Part of the issue is that I need to get up at 5:30 AM to get to work, and the hour or two at night that I get to myself is so precious. Hopefully I do better this year.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Morning After The Newsgasm

Late yesterday afternoon the Trump Era's axis seemed to tilt once again. The news of Michael Cohen's plea deal directly implicating Trump came minutes after news of Paul Manafort's conviction on eight felony counts. Soon news came of early Trump supporter Duncan Hunter's fraud.

I've started calling events like these "newsgasms." Yesterday afternoon before the news broke I had just happened to buy a bottle of ten year aged bourbon, and I cracked it open last night to watch the news shows with my wife like it was a playoff sports game. I was feeling something I had not felt in months: hope. (The toppling of the Confederate statue in Chapel Hill the day before had already lifted my spirits, so this was a rare multiple newsgasm.)

Now I am sitting in the hard bright morning light thinking about what happens next. Don't get me wrong, I do not have a hangover, either from the news or from the whiskey. Part of me is well aware that prior outrages and revelations from Trumpworld have yet to shake the Republicans' support of him. Trump's allies will follow him to the gates of hell. In regards to family separation, they already have.

Even if this seems like an insurmountable fact of political life, it still must be assailed. As I have said before, the legal system and Mueller are not going to save us. The Democratic Party is certainly not going to save us. Only we can save ourselves. This will all only mean something if we mobilize.

Certainly this means mobilizing for the election, since Trump and his criminal gang will not be held accountable until his enablers are voted out of office. An opportunity is presenting itself at the right time. The Republicans are playing defense, it is time to bring the fight to them as forcefully as possible all the way until November.

There is another and more urgent need for mobilization, however. The Kavanaugh nomination threatens to firmly put the control of the Supreme Court in the hands of people who want to take away LBTQ, civil, labor, and reproductive rights. Kavanaugh is tremendously unpopular, but conservatives have been pushing to control the court for decades and they will do seemingly anything to accomplish that goal, including following Trump to the gates of hell. However, if it is clear that Trump has been directly implicated in criminal behavior, there is a chance that the likes of Flake and McCain can be peeled off, and that's all we need. They will be less likely to chicken out if we are in the streets demanding that Trump not be able to nominate someone who will be judging his criminal behavior. The same goes for spineless Dems like Manchin and Heitkamp who somehow think supporting Kavanaugh will get them conservative voters.

I'm not saying any of this is guaranteed to work, but it beats the hell out of sitting back and watching MSNBC and praying for Mueller or Tweeting fatalistic "I told you so" snark. That will accomplish nothing.

You've probably asked yourself how you would behave in a time of political crisis. Well guess what, now's your chance to find out. Let's get to work.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Old Dad's Records 29 (Rock And Roll All Night)

Last night I recorded the most recent episode of my podcast, Old Dad's Records. This time I went "live on the nines." As my Facebook friends know, I did a poll last week to determine the album to be discussed, and the winner was Cheap Trick's At Budokan. Before getting into that great record, I talk about KISS and "Rock and Roll All Night." I despise KISS for many reasons I get into, but I do love that particular song. I end the episode with an appreciation of Aretha Franklin. In particular I talk about her amazing ability when it came to reinterpreting other people's songs and making them better.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Nearly Fatal Dose of Fatalism

"Calling It Quits" by Aimee Mann is on my mind right now

After the 2016 election I did some soul-searching, and realized that I had been far too willing to not engage myself directly in politics. During the Bush years I had gone to anti-war protests and was involved in a successful grad student unionization movement at my university. When I lived in Texas I contacted my representatives so that they could not pretend that all of their constituents supported their Tea Party agenda. After moving to bluer New Jersey I got apathetic, and with new family obligations, I was not staying active. The presence of the Obama administration also helped put me at ease.

Since the election I have been very involved. My Senators are basically on my speed dial. I left an angry message on the leader of the state senate's voicemail when he was talking about maintaining budget austerity. I have been involved in too many protests to count in the past year and a half. I have led teach-ins at my school. I have donated not insignificant sums of money to political candidates. 

All of a sudden this month in the dog days of summer I lost the spirit, as they say in church. For example, I did not attend any of the protests in nearby Bedminster while Trump was staying there. I had always been there during his prior stays.

Looking back on it, I think the Helsinki meeting and my visit back home set me on a path to fatalism. I think that the family separation policy is by far the most monstrous thing that the Trump administration has done (right up there with banning Syrian refugees), the Helsinki debacle was the kind of thing that was so transparent and public that the media and a good chunk of Republicans would be unable to deny that this presidency is not normal. For maybe a day or two, media figures seemed genuinely outraged, and let the bullshit "objectivity" -which is mostly cowardice- drop. Within a week, however, no member of the administration had resigned, and the press was back to covering Trump the way they always did, as if their viewing public had all gotten lobotomies. Going home was a lesson that even conservatives who do not personally like Trump will not turn on him as long as they a union-busting, anti-abortion judge. Literally nothing is ever going to change their minds, including the proverbial shooting on Fifth Avenue.

This was a fact that I had KNOWN abstractly in my head for awhile, but for the first time I truly FELT it palpably in my soul.

Earlier this week I started to wonder if I should be focused on how to survive and protect others in the inevitable autocratic oligarchy, rather than thinking that my resistance to it can matter in any meaningful way. I had hope for the election, but hearing about the extent of voter suppression and the Democrats' weak appeals has drained that hope. A friend who feels similarly came up with the word I had been searching for: fatalism.

I had three hours behind the wheel today driving alone from Baltimore to Maplewood, and that gave me the opportunity to really think about all this. I concluded that I am right to be pessimistic. I think what we are witnessing has a 50-50 chance to be like the destruction of Reconstruction after 1877, and that thought scares the hell out of me. At the same time, I think it is dangerous to let that pessimism turn into fatalism. If the stakes are truly that high, I cannot live with myself sitting on the sidelines.

I am, however, going to think long and hard about whether the kinds of political action I am taking are fruitful, and how I might use my time, money, effort, and abilities more effectively. This has included the odd thought of running for local offices controlled by the godawful New Jersey Democratic machine. As I reminded myself, I could not live with myself otherwise. Now time to go out and push that boulder. 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Charlottesville One Year On

Today marks the anniversary of the murder of Heather Heyer at the hands of Nazis. I remember hearing the news right after I returned from a different protest, this one at Donald Trump's golf course in Bedminster, where he was staying at the time. As if that tragedy was not bad enough, the president's comments, which displayed sympathy towards the Nazis, showed for all the world to see that the man who was willing to venomously attack just about anybody -including gold star parents- did not want to offend violent racists.

The next day I took part in a candlelight vigil and march here in Maplewood, New Jersey. A lot of people showed up, and attendance crossed the racial and class lines that often divide this town. Trump's reaction to Heyer's death seemed at the time like it could be a kind of breaking point.

I even felt that for a minute, but that was a hopelessly naive thought. Here we are one year later, and Republicans are still just as loyal to Trump. As I have said before, they signed a blood pact with him, and in any case, the Republican party espouses a respectable, lite version of white nationalism as its official doctrine. The vast majority do not follow Trump despite his racism, they have maintained their loyalty BECAUSE of it.

Since then the outrages have only increased. This summer we have seen children kidnapped from their parents and put in cages for the crime of seeking asylum legally in the United States. There has been a wave of stories about unprecedented corruption. The president himself appeared to sell out the United States to a foreign dictator live on international television.

And yet the Democrats are in doubt over whether they will succeed in this year's elections. That might seem insane, but notice how so few people have recalibrated themselves to deal with the current situation, which is nothing less than the early stages despotic rule. Democrats still insist on playing it safe in their political strategy, just like before. Various people on the left refuse to make common cause with liberals, just like before. Most importantly, Republicans have gone all in on this.

A year after Charlottesville I want us to remember Heather Heyer, and to give thanks to those who showed up and stood up to Nazis. But I also want us to remember this event to remind ourselves of the perniciousness of what we are up against. The Moloch of Trumpism cannot be shamed. It cannot be talked to or persuaded. It cannot be expected to just go away. It can only be confronted, and once confronted, it must be destroyed. And that's going to require a lot more fight than we have been giving it so far, myself included.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Billboard Top Ten August 12, 1978

I feel the need to do another top ten. Every now and again I get obsessed with the pop music of the 1978-1981 period, which I call the Reagan Dawn. There were some amazing studio musicians back then laying down the tracks, right before the 80s and everything became computerized. This particular countdown is one chock full of smooth music played by real pros. Now on with the countdown!

10. Andy Gibb, "An Everlasting Love"

In 1978 the Bee Gees bestrode the earth like a colossus. Andy Gibb was too young to have been in the band, but he had his own career in the late 70s with songs and production by big bro Barry. At that time every he touched turned into gold, until a massive backlash suddenly made the Bee Gees persona non grata in the 1980s. The Bee Gees themselves put out a lot of great records, but Andy Gibb's stuff is a lot spottier. This song is not much to write home about, and is certainly no "Shadow Dancing."

9. Walter Egan, "Magnet and Steel"

This is the song that sent me down the late 70s rabbit hole. I think it was made for hot, dog days August evenings. It's the perfect smooth song to play while sipping a cocktail by the pool with the bugs chirping. The background vocals have always entranced me, and I recently discovered they were by Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, which makes sense. It has that slinky magic of the Fleetwood Mac songs of the era, with a touch of doo-wop.

8. Barry Manilow, "Copacabana"

I am not much of a Manilow fan but this is an insanely catchy tune. It's also an example of how disco brought in lots of Latin rhythms to pop music. This song is also strange in that it puts a story song into a disco context. Most disco songs are not meant to have you care about the lyrics, but hey, Barry writes the songs.

7. Pablo Cruise, "Love Will Find A Way"

Listen to this song and snort up a pure, uncut rail of Yacht Rock. It is a shockingly indirect song for such a big hit, but the sound was perfect for the time.

6. A Taste Of Honey, "Boogie Oogie Oogie"

A Taste of Honey is often trotted out at Grammy time, just to remind folks that they were once given the Best New Artist Award. It's a good reminder that the Grammys have always been trash. HOWEVER, this song is a highlight of the disco era. The bass is classic busy disco bass, just walking all over the damn place. Disco completed the pioneering efforts of funk and reggae to liberate the bass as an instrument, and for that, I salute it.

5. Foreigner, "Hot Blooded"

This right here is the Mount Olympus of cock rock. Mainstream hard rock was self-parodying itself to Spinal Tap levels by 1978, and this song is proof. Mick Jones as always lays down a killer, catchy riff, and Lou Gramm sings like he's got his testicles in his throat. Foreigner were the ultimate avatar of mainstream rock in the late 70s, which was competent, faceless, and corporate.

4. The Rolling Stones, "Miss You"

For decades years now Stones fans have been saying their new albums are "their best since Some Girls" in an effort to convince themselves that they didn't waste thirteen bucks at Best Buy on Voodoo Lounge. That album is the benchmark because of songs like "Miss You." The Stones have always kept the roll in rock and roll, and on this song they actually went full disco with the bass and drums. Sugar Blue's harmonica also gives the song a unique sound, Mississippi by way of Studio 54. Forty years later the Stones have had some hits and misses, but no new songs this good.

3. Donna Summer, "Last Dance"

I will always love this song, since it was (by our request) the last song played at our wedding. Donna Summer has got to be one of the most important and best-selling musical artists with the least amount of critical recognition. I blame the opprobrium heaped onto disco, as well as producer Giorgio Moroder getting credit for everything. When this song starts to take off after the soft opening she really gives it wings. RIP

2. Frankie Valli, "Grease"

Jersey boy Frankie Valli had been one of the great pop stars of the pre-Beatles 60s, but had an improbable comeback in the 70s with songs like "Oh What A Night" and "Grease." The lime green suit and fly collar combo in the video clip is almost as 70s as the lite disco accompaniment. More importantly, the song was written by Barry Gibb, whose golden touch extended beyond the Bee Gees in the late 70s. It is kind of amazing how certain songwriters and producers can just nail down the sound of a particular time, then get pushed aside so soon afterward.

1. The Commodores, "Three Times A Lady"

The Commodores had once been a preposterously funky band. (Just listen to "Machine Gun" and "Brick House.") Then, at some point Lionel Richie sold his funk soul to the pop music devil. I know some people like him, but his love songs are unbearably schmaltzy, including this one. The turning away of funk for pop stardom was the ultimate Reagan Dawn move.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The White Supremacy Of Not Caring

The phrase "white supremacist" conjures up visions of Klan robes and shaved heads and swastika tattoos. These days one might also think of a Trump rally. These very obvious manifestations of white supremacy are the proverbial tip of the iceberg. White supremacy is maintained in this country less by openly expressed hate, and more by quiet, subtle, apathy.

One of America's dirty little secrets is that while white Americans by and large don't give a shit about the lives of people of color they don't talk about it much, either. Sometimes silence speaks louder than words. I know a lot of quiet white supremacists who are not vocal Trump supporters, do not express open bigotry, and in some cases are not even conservative. Many of them also don't even really seem to think a whole lot about race.

It's something they'd rather not think about at all. They have internalized the racist hierarchy in their minds, and so feel no need to examine their skin privilege, or even to think that such a thing exists. Their position in society is natural, as far as they are concerned, the product of hard work. When things happen that display the massive levels of racism in this society, they just choose to ignore it and just not care about it.

When Trayvon Martin was murdered, they assumed he must have done something to deserve it. (Repeat this for every time a black person is murdered by the police.) They look at the system of mass incarceration and only think that it's a fine thing that so many criminals are off of the streets. When Flint's water was turned into poison, they just turned the page and moved on. When immigrant children were kidnapped and jailed, they told themselves "well, they were breaking the law" and maybe, just maybe, thought "it's really too bad that had to happen." They heard Trump's racist rants and maybe didn't like them, but still went in to vote for him for a tax cut or an anti-abortion judge on the Supreme Court.

The protests by NFL players are the ultimate litmus test of this phenomenon. While I support the protesting players, I can understand but not agree with those who disapprove of their methods, if and only they are also upset about the police killings inspiring those protests. The thing is, I have never met one of these unicorns. The same people made at the kneeling are, surprise surprise, the same who never said a single word when Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and so many others were murdered. Why? Because they tacitly support the racist system responsible. 

And when you meet these people, you will often find that they are "nice" people. They are friendly, respectful in their speech, and may even have close friends and family members who are not white. Some people are amazed at the stories of white Trump voters whose immigrant spouses were later deported. I am not surprised in the least. White supremacy in America is violently maintained by the state, but those who approve of that system mostly do not do so by screaming "Build the Wall!" but by hearing about immigrant children abused in custody, shrugfully saying "that's a shame," and not giving it a second thought. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

New Episode of Old Dad's Records

This week I recorded another episode of my podcast, Old Dad's Records. This edition came out of my West Coast vacation, and the theme was gloomy Los Angeles music. The song this time was The Doors' "Light My Fire." It is super uncool to like The Doors these days, but I must admit they came into my life at an absolutely crucial point. After I talk perhaps too enthusiastically about The Doors, I pull The Seeds' first album off of my pile of old records. I found this gem at Amoeba Music in Hollywood, a truly wonderful store. I am a Sixties garage rock junkie, I must admit. This is despite the, shall we say, problematic nature of the genre's gender politics. There is something about the loud hum of the sound of that music that I can't resist. I end with a new song, this one by Lana Del Rey. Her character is Hollywood to the hilt, but the tragic boulevard of broken dreams Hollywood. She is the Weimar-esque cabaret torch singer our dying empire needs.