Monday, September 26, 2016

Harry Nilsson sings Randy Newman's "Living Without You"

The presidential debate is about to begin. I am nervous, to say the least. To calm myself I am listening to one one of the three singers whose voice is instantly soothing to me: Harry Nilsson. (Al Green and Sam Cooke are the other two.)

It was oddly perfect in 1970 that Nilsson, with his sweet, angelic voice able to hop octaves in a single bound, did an album of Randy Newman covers. Newman's voice has been called many things, none of them angelic. (I quite like it, but my spouse and many of my friends disagree.) Whereas Newman would sing his songs with a kind of drooling leer, Nilsson mined their emotional depths. On Nilsson Sings Newman he sticks mostly with Newman's human songs, rather than his caustic political commentary.

Newman can write so well about the mundane feelings of inadequacy and despair that so many have on a daily basis. His best in this regard has got to be "Living Without You." It's the story of depression and losing the will to live after being abandoned by a lover, but it does a great job of evoking the feelings of depression generally. The spare piano (played by Newman) is pretty yet mournful beneath Nilsson's lament of resignation. He describes the morning newspaper hitting the door and the subway rumbling by, and the pain a depressive feels when they realize that their sleep is over and they will have to actually go out and face the day. The second verse is even more evocative: "Everyone's got something/ They're trying to get some more/ They got something to get up for/ But I ain't about to."Nilsson adds a little oomph to that line, the character finally getting out of his daze only to adamantly refuse to wake up.

Let's just say that I have definitely been there before. On this song that state of sad lethargy almost sounds beatific.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Some Advice For The Clinton Campaign

The Clinton campaign has had a rocky couple of weeks, to be sure. What once looked like a path to a blowout now looks close. In looking at the Clinton campaign, it's fundamental problem is obvious: it can convince people not to vote for Trump, but that doesn't mean those same people will vote for Clinton. To put it bluntly, she has been hoping so hard for Trump to self-destruct that she has failed to make a case for herself. With the first debate tomorrow, Clinton has the perfect opportunity.

That case has to be made, especially with voters who ought to be friendly to her. While Clinton has managed to get the support of some prominent high level Republicans, that will only repel elements of the Democratic base, who worry about her commitment to progressive politics. Many voters who ought to be voting for Clinton are opting for Stein or Johnson, especially among younger voters.

She needs to cultivate that potential base, and can easily do so by promoting policies that she has already championed. For instance, she supports subsidized day care, a major boon to young parents and especially to women. When Trump rolled out his own bullshit plan based in tax breaks that would mostly help those who don't need it, I was amazed at how little discussion Clinton's much more generous proposal had received. In fact, Trump was allowed to claim that Clinton has yet to propose anything at all. Unlike Trump she also has a plan for college debt relief, another issue dear to young voters, but one that might actually be less galvanizing than day care. Clinton needs to be flogging those issues big time.

She especially needs to reach out to African American millennials, who support her at a much lower level than blacks of older generations. There is plenty of justified skepticism, based on her demonization of "superpredators" in the 90s in support of incarceration legislation. With Black Lives Matter protestors ought in the streets in the wake of multiple, prominent killings of African Americans at the hands of the police, she needs to strongly register her support.

What I think she needs to do is to repudiate the triangulation strategy perfected by her husband, because it is destroying the Democratic party. The moderate "soccer mom" types only vote in the presidential elections, leaving the disaffected base to save the midterms after years of neglect. This meant massive blowout losses in 2010 and 2014, maintaining a radically conservative Congress. If Clinton does not motivate the party's base to support her, she might as well not even be president, because she will be hamstrung by a Congress out to destroy her. There is a younger generation that is much more receptive to social democratic ideas, it must be cultivated and listened to. The Democrats keep disrespecting their base, and then wonder why they can't sustain its support. Maybe, instead of bowing and scraping to draw the dwindling number of suburban voters who show up to the polls but are too confused to know what side they are, the Democrats should mobilize the people who actually put them in office.

Last, but not least, Clinton needs to do something that major party candidates rarely do: confront third party candidates. Stein and Johnson are siphoning votes away, and guilt-tripping voters won't work. For those Sandersnistas saying they'll vote for Johnson, the answer is pretty clear. Clinton needs to let voters know the reality of libertarianism, and that it is mainly focused on funneling money to the wealthy, not on legal weed. There are a lot of voters who know they could never cast a ballot for Trump, Clinton cannot take for granted that she will automatically get their votes.

Friday, September 23, 2016

1986, The Reagan Era's Apotheosis

Reagan's address to the country about the Iran-Contra affair in November of 1986, perhaps the moment where the end of the Reagan era began

I've been thinking a lot recently about the 1980s, and also how that decade was more complex than just Reaganomics, cocaine, spandex, and synthesizers. When Reagan won reelection by a whopping landslide in 1984, he and everything he stood for seemed unstoppable. In two years, however, the cracks began to show, even though the year 1986 may very well have marked the highest cultural saturation yet of Reagan values. It was a year of yin an yang, and for that reason fascinating to look at thirty years later.

In some areas of popular culture, the triumph of Reagan seemed complete, especially in pop music. Just check out the list of the top ten singles of that year:

1 Dionne and Friends,"That's What Friends Are For"
2 Lionel Richie, "Say You, Say Me"
3 Klymaxx,  "I Miss You"
4 Patti Labelle and Michael McDonald, "On My Own"
5 Mr. Mister, "Broken Wings"
6 Whitney Houston, "How Will I Know"
7 Eddie Murphy, "Party All The Time"
8 Survivor, "Burning Heart"
9 Mr. Mister, "Kyrie"
10 Robert Palmer, "Addicted To Love"

That's right, not one, but two songs by Mr. Mister. It's a completely forgettable list of mediocre music, perfectly representative of the Reagan era's cultural blandness and homogenization.

That cultural saturation of Reaganism is most evident in Top Gun, the highest grossing film of that year, and one big, long shiny love letter to the machinery of war. The Hollywood that a decade before produced the likes of Apocalypse Now! and Coming Home was now making MTV-influenced war movies with the subtlety of an old school John Wayne flick. Top Gun is practically a recruiting video for the Navy, and is so over the top in its gung ho patriotism and homoerotic masculinity that it almost seems like a Paul Verhoeven satire a la Starship Troopers. At the end, Maverick gets to shoot down a bunch of Soviet MiGs without any international consequences.

By the end of the year, however, Top Gun's summer movie magic would start to look like the relic that we joke about today. In October Reagan and Gorbachev met for a summit meeting in Iceland that now looks like a permanent thawing in the Cold War. The days of "evil empire" rhetoric and fear of nuclear war were numbered, if not over. In late December of 1986 a very different war movie entered limited release: Platoon. Oliver Stone's film, the first about Vietnam by a veteran of that conflict, struck a very different tone than Top Gun and would go on to win the Oscar for best picture. Other recent films about Vietnam had been bloody revenge fantasies or POW rescue flicks, like Uncommon Valor, Rambo, and the Missing In Action films. Now the war was being portrayed much more realistically, and as a tragic mistake.

The shift from triumphalism to questioning mirrored the larger political fortunes of Ronald Wilson Reagan. Early in the year he got to have a Top Gun moment when he ordered American ships to Gulf of Sidra and bombed Colonel Gaddafi's home after a terror attack on American GIs. The mass approval of this action seemed to signal an end to the "Vietnam Syndrome."

Yet all was not well for Reagan. After almost six years in office, his party lost the Senate in the 1986 election. He was facing increased criticism over his inability to publicly address AIDS, which would kill over ten thousand Americans in that year. At the end of the year, in November, news of the Reagan administration's illegal trade of arms for hostages with Iran and later illegal funding of the Nicaraguan Contras first broke. The scandal would consume the Reagan administration, and even though it would not turn into another Watergate due to Oliver North's destruction of incriminating evidence, it would take a big hit on Reagan's popularity. His age started to show, and he now appeared feeble, and not always in control of the situation.

In 1987 the short-lived Reagan-era consensus would be broken. The stock market crash later in the year would call Wall Street's new growth into question. The newly Democratic Senate's refusal to accept Robert Bork's nomination would open a new front in the culture wars, which would be fought with much greater intensity. The Cold War would cease to be such a distraction from the decaying domestic sphere, and AIDS, the neglect of America's cities, and growing inequality would be put much more in the foreground of the national conversation.

The ultimate failure of Reagan's promise to bring "morning in America" was perhaps prophesied by an event that burned itself on the psyche of my generation: the space shuttle Challenger explosion in January. It was not just any other space program disaster, since NASA had been using that mission to promote space exploration to children via the participation of a non-astronaut teacher, Christa McAuliffe. This meant that many, many kids saw the explosion live, as it happened. For me it was a sad tragedy, but also a sign of the vulnerability beneath the massive wave of nationalism being pushed on us. Six astronauts and a teacher had to sacrifice their lives in an ill-fated attempt to maintain an image of Reagan's America that was soon about to be completely faded.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Billboard Top 10 September 23, 1972

I have a theory that in terms of culture, the seventies don't really begun until sometime in late 1971, with 1972 the real first full year of the seventies. I decided to test that out with this month's flashback Top Ten from September of that year. The number one song definitely validates my thesis.

10. Gary Glitter, "Rock and Roll Part 2"

This has got to be one of the weirdest songs in the pop canon. It's hard for me to believe that it ever existed as anything other than something to be blasted over the speakers at sporting events. Now that Gary Glitter's sexual transgressions are known, it makes me feel icky to listen to it. Even without that knowledge, it's pretty damn weird. No lyrics except "hey" over a trashy glam rock riff and chunky handclaps, a sports cheer rather than a song that just needed a few years to find its true home at basketball games.

9. The Raspberries, "Go All The Way"

I loved Guardians of the Galaxy, not least of which for its use of this song. Coming years before the advent of New Wave, the Raspberries perfected the power pop sound. Killer riffs mesh beautifully with the soaring melodies, so much that I forget that the singer is merely begging his girlfriend to have sex with him.

8. Elton John, "Honky Cat"

Elton John ruled the charts in the early 70s, and I've always liked this song (and the album it came from), because it's got a little more bite and less balladry to it. There's a good little boogie piano beneath the usually on point melody here.

7. The Main Ingredient, "Everybody Plays The Fool"

This is a nice little slice of catchy, sweet soul music. I was just listening to Parliament's "Make My Funk The P-Funk," which name checks them, but puts them down as not being funky enough. Yes, this song is poppy with those flute touches, but it still definitely holds up today.

6. Michael Jackson, "Ben"

Michael Jackson's first solo number one hit was a ballad from a movie about killer rats. No, I am not joking. It's a tepid but sweet song that is redeemed by the bright light of Jackson's unique talent, evident even at this young age.

5. Gilbert O'Sullivan, "Alone Again (Naturally)"

Now this here is most definitely a prime specimen of early 1970s pop music. It's a melancholic song about heartbreak and contemplating suicide set to a jaunty tune, the singer resigned to his fate. The seventies malaise certainly made music like this seem relevant.

4. The O'Jays, "Backstabbers"

The mighty O'Jays cut the best examples of the Philadelphia soul sound, a sublime combination of funky rhythms and lush arrangements. Although the song is about a man whose friend is making moves on his lady, I've always thought it appropriate that this song came out on the eve of Richard Nixon's re-election. The feeling of paranoia that drenches the song is just about spot on for the times.

3. Chicago, "Saturday In The Park"

Before Peter Cetera showed them the way to 80s pop ballad nirvana, Chicago played horn-driven, jazzy tunes catchy enough to make the Top 40. I don't care much for their music from either era, but this one has a nice mellow feel, similar to, well, spending Saturday in the park.

2. Three Dog Night, "Black and White"

Of all the artists on the top ten this week, Three Dog Night is probably the one most trapped in the early 1970s, a poppier version of Grand Funk Railroad. This band had a metric ton of hits, eleven in the top ten from 1969 to 1974, and 21 Top 40 entries total from 1969 to 1975. They represented the mainstreaming of the sixties counterculture in the 70s in songs like this one, which expresses support for racial harmony in the blandest terms possible. "Ebony and Ivory" might be edgier.

1. Mac Davis, "Baby Don't Get Hooked On Me"

Hoo boy, this song is so seventies you can practically smell the polyester. Davis was a very 70s kind of performer, a songwriter who then started singing his own tunes, much like Carole King and Kris Kristofferson. Like Kristofferson he had one foot in country and one foot in the pop world. The theme of this song is about as seventies as it gets: a bored sounding man telling a young woman who he's boning not to get attached to him. It has lines like "You're a hot blooded woman child/ And it's warm where you're touching me." Eww. By the seventies the sexual revolution had become bland and banal, enough to make the top of the charts and not feel subversive in any way.

Monday, September 19, 2016

David Bowie, "Red Sails"

This Bowie live set on German TV in 1978 justifies YouTube's existence

Try as I might, I cannot get over the deaths of David Bowie and Prince earlier this year. Both men were true musical geniuses, as well as rebels against narrowly-defined masculinity. In the case of Bowie, his death prompted me to finally check out an album I had heretofore ignored: Lodger. I didn't know any of its songs, and although it was recorded in the late 70s, I'd always heard that it was a departure from what Bowie did on Low and Heroes, perhaps my two favorite records of his.

Well, I had been steered wrong. Lodger is phenomenal, a melding of his impressionistic Berlin sound with hard-edged pop rock. It's like a glimpse into the alternate reality 1980s that I wished had come to be. No song illustrates this better than "Red Sails." It has Adrian Belew's chaotic, effects-laden guitar and the humming, slightly ominous (and surely Eno derived) electric groove that underlay Iggy Pop's Idiot album (produced by Bowie.) Beneath it lies the insanely tight, amazing rhythm section of Dennis Davis, Carlos Alomar, and George Murray, setting a rock solid base. There is a theme of travel, accentuated by the fast tempo and galloping beat, but we're not sure where we're going exactly, until the chant on the bridge about going "to the hinterland." It is perhaps the only song ever to properly embody the propulsion of travel combined with its anxiety.

Bowie was so amazing that this song comes from an album usually regarded as relatively minor in his oeuvre, the least notable of his Berlin Trilogy, and is still superb. I hear it now, with its themes of travel, less as part of the Berlin Trilogy and more Bowie pointing the way forward to a new musical territory to explore. He had survived fearsome levels of drug abuse in the mid-1970s, went into a kind of therapy in Berlin, and emerged as the purveyor of a new, nervy kind of poppy art rock with the same sharp angles and adventurous spirit of New Wave, but without being derivative in any way. He and Prince both had a rare ability to both drive and respond to changes in the musical landscape without sacrificing originality. (Well, apart from the mid-80s in Bowie's case.) I despair because I don't know if we will ever see artists capable of that again.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Republic Of Fear (Redux)

We are a nation governed by fear. I try to resist it, but I too can get dragged down into its morass. Yesterday I was out and about with my family, and we decided to stop into a mall to kill some time before an event we were attending was starting. Why a mall? Because of the indoor play area, which is a perfect place to take toddlers if you want them to run around while getting out of the sun. There was a boy with a toy gun there who kept shooting it at other kids, something I would barely have noticed in my childhood, but which filled my with almost unbearable anxiety and dread. All the news of mass shootings had clearly had an effect on me.

Soon after that I heard reports of a pipe bomb that had been planted near the finish line of a run in New Jersey, which was thankfully discovered before it exploded. Later that day came the explosion in Chelsea. Soon on my social media feed the massive reservoir of fearful magma beneath America came bursting forth in the hot lava. And, of course, before hardly anything was known, Trump was trying to exploit it.

Fear has historically been a powerful force in American political history, but since 9/11, it has been given a massive steroid injection. Historically, this fear usually means rights are taken away, and people die. Fear of Native Americans led to the Trail of Tears, fear of white supremacy being compromised contributing to lynchings, fear of communism destroyed the lives of those targeted, fear of poor young people of color resulted in mass incarceration. The list goes on. The fear spiral in our case has lasted so long because politicians have failed so spectacularly to deliver a better world, and so must instead base their legitimacy on "protecting" the public from violence. (That's the thesis of the BBC's amazing The Power of Nightmares, which I consider to be the most important documentary of the post-9/11 world.)

Donald Trump has been so successful because he is the fear candidate. He has perfectly channeled the fears of white middle America, from a fear of Muslims to fears of African Americans, to fears of immigration, and to fears of national decline. He appeals to the white people who live in suburbs founded and based in fear, from their segregated housing to the local police forces who pull over any black people who dare surpass its borders. He certainly must have remembered how back in 2003 Dubya managed to use that fear to get broad public support for an invasion of a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.

And in the midst of this orgy of fear, others are given much more to fear. Muslims have to fear being targeted by a growing wave of hate crimes. African Americans have to fear being murdered by the police in the routine course of their daily lives. Immigrants have to fear deportation or having their families ripped apart.

I do not see any horizon for the Republic of Fear. That too fills me with fear, because I am not sure how long a society can function or even exist in a state like this.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Strange Absence Of "Generation X" From The Political Discourse

We are hearing a lot of generational analysis when it comes to the election, especially in regards to Millennials. This fits with broader cultural discourses that are sometimes comically maladroit in determining what Millennials are all about. We can all certainly acknowledge that generational thinking is problematic because talking about people across race, class, gender, regional, and sexual lines as if they share the same mentality because they were born around the same time is rather specious. Articles about “the millennials” are thus preferred by hack journalists who need to get something in before deadline.

At the same time, generational thinking can help explain some things, because those born around the same time grow up consuming the same popular culture, living under the same government policies, etc. I recently finally read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and although we grew up in radically different places, we are about the same age, and I noticed a definite Generation X feeling to his insights that really spoke to me. (The growth of politically conscious hip-hop and interest in Malcolm X had managed to reach me out on the Nebraska plains.)

So it is with a little trepidation that I am embarking on a little discussion on an analysis of Generation X in the current political landscape. There’s a lot of talk about how Millennials are more likely to vote third party in this election, as well as the longings by white Boomers for a past that never existed. What about my generation, stuck in the middle, the product of a historically steep drop in the birth rate?

The first thing to note is that it now looks likely that much like the Silent Generation, there will never be a Gen X president. While Barack Obama has a certain Xer quality about him, he is still a Late Boomer. (They came of age after the 60s but before the Reagan era had completely settled in.) All four candidates for president are Boomers, and there does not seem to be a Gen Xer out there able to rise to the top anytime soon. This is especially the case on the Democratic side, where the failure to win local elections means that they are not developing the next generation of politicians. On the Republican side there are many Xers, but they are the simpering contrarian Young Republican types that I encountered in college in the 90s, like Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, and Ted Cruz. Coming up at the height of Ayn Rand’s influence, they are too trollish to make it on the presidential stage, even if they’ve had some political success. They are the product of the supercharged post-Reagan conservative movement, and have succeeded within the party for that reason, but with the rise of Trumpism the days of their power might be few.

So what about the voters? Part of the problem is that pollsters don’t really use Generation X as a category, because when they organize the data they may talk about voters under thirty or voters aged 30-55, but not the parameters of Gen X (which I would define as those between roughly 35 and 50 years of age.) This is part of the larger trend of pretending that my generation doesn’t really exist as a distinct entity. I think some of this is rooted in the reality that the mentality of my generation is even more disunited than that of others, especially the generation after mine. The War on Drugs and mass incarceration raged during my coming of age, and the increase in de facto segregation means that the experiences of white and black Gen Xers are often completely foreign to each other, perhaps even more so than for other generations.

Another difference has to do with religion. My generation is less churched than our elders, but more churched than the Millennials.  Lots of people my age rejected organized religion, but we were also the guinea pigs for the revival of the Religious Right, and many folks my age were subjected to extreme indoctrination. Many rejected it, but a large number also embraced it. Gen Xers seem to be more broad minded when it comes to gay marriage and transgender rights, but not as much as the younger generation.

Generation X is, in many respects, a transitional generation. The Boomers were established before the late 20th century neoliberal onslaught; that’s the world we came of age in. The middle class members of my generation were the ones to finally be able to buy their first homes at inflated prices in the bubble, and then were thrust underwater by the financial crisis. Contrast this with the Millennials, who have had our economic difficulties growing up in a time of expensive college loans and casualized labor, but even worse. They just aren't buying homes, period. We were the canaries in the coal mine, but when we were transitioning into this new economy, there weren’t any sympathetic think pieces. Things hadn’t gotten so bad that elite journalists bothered to pay attention.

Since generational thinking is so inherently troubled, I do wonder if Gen Xers aren’t part of the discourse simply because it is too difficult to cram us into an easy narrative. In my youth I remember all kinds of concern pieces about how we were a “nation at risk” in schools full of “super predators” and “slackers.” Perhaps generational political thinking then and now was just a reflection of anxieties about the younger generation, and in ten years as Millenials hit middle age they won't be invoked much anymore. Now that our youth is no longer a flashpoint of anxiety amidst moral panics (as it was in the Reagan era), “Gen X” might as well be another relic of the nineties, like grunge and MC Hammer. Perhaps journalists should drop the facile generational analysis and talk more about the broader changes -secularization, lowered economic security, etc- that are leading to the generation gap between Millennials and Boomers.