Monday, January 23, 2017

Classic Music Videos: U2 "Sunday Bloody Sunday"

[Editor's Note: It's been way too long since I've put a video under a microscope, so here it goes.]

The other day I was talking to a new friend, and after feeling each other out and making sure it was safe to admit, we realized that we both had a deep affection for U2. This has become a bit of an uncool thing to admit recently, I guess for good reason. But as uninteresting as the band's music has become and as insufferable as Bono's public persona can be, they made a handful of really fantastic albums that will always stick with me.

My friend and I noted how in the cultural and political wasteland of the 1980s, their early political moves were exciting, rather than eye rolling. In the midst of the Reagan reaction and its excess of greed, nationalism, and indifference to suffering, the live video for "Sunday Bloody Sunday" hit me upside the head with a spiritual two by four. I was a weird child, so I watched the news and was well aware of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Living in a town where Catholics and Protestants were pretty divided (at least back then) I was shocked that such differences could be a reason to murder someone. (I wasn't really apprised of the history of occupation and settlement, of course. Due to my Catholic identity I definitely had a side, though.) This song was about those Troubles, but in the midst of Reagan's rearming and the sudden reheating of the Cold War, I took it as a cry for sanity in an insane, war-crazed world.

The marching beat, descending melody of Edge reverb, and keening harmonies immediately provoke an erie, unsettling sensation. That gets magnified in the video, shot in the Red Rocks outdoor theater in Colorado. There are burning flames on the rocks under a famously blood red sky, their colors turned into kaleidoscopic flares by virtue of being shot on early and primitive videotape. (So meta. It's a video where video itself is a major player in the look of it.) The video is also notable for showing Edge with hair and without a hat, perhaps the last one to do so. His buffalo check flannel vest is kind of in style again nowadays, so you can't say this aged too poorly.

As always, Bono is the center of attention, practicing unique and less overtly macho front man moves than say Jagger or Plant. Bono sort of skip-hop marches in time with the beat, occasionally flinging his mullet, perhaps the most glorious of the 80s. The piece de la resistance, of course, is the white flag that Bono plants at the front of the stage screaming "No more!" You can call it cheesy, but it still gets me. In the midst of the glorification of military might and false lies of "morning in America" here was a song calling for humanity and peace. We need that spirit more than ever.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Why Trump Had A Turnout Problem

In case you missed it, press secretary Sean Spicer was sent by the Orange Emperor to blow up at the media today and dispute the crowd size numbers from the inauguration. Tellingly, he did not talk about the wave of protests today, since it was blindingly obvious that Trump's opponents had vastly outnumbered his supporters in the streets of New York. And that didn't even count the hundreds of thousands in other cities.

I am not going to discuss crowd sizes in terms of hard numbers, but rather get at why there is such a disparity. With Trump now in power, he is having to face two harsh realities. Reality number one is that he benefited from the left being divided over Clinton. With her out of the picture they can unite over their dislike of the right, making the left much stronger. Second, Trump's base of support is much smaller than he and many others have assumed.

Remember, he did not even win a majority of the Republican votes in the primaries. He obviously lost by almost three million votes in the general election, getting only 46% of the popular vote. The people who did not vote for him really really dislike him. He won the presidency with the votes of Republicans, but a lot of those Republicans were really just voting against Clinton. None of the conservatives I know were Trump voters in the primaries, and since the election they have basically washed their hands of him. They voted for him as an imperfect choice or as a way to hold off their enemies or get a favorable Supreme Court pick, but without any real enthusiasm and many reservations.

This has all been obscured by the media's portrayal of Trump as a "populist." He is in actuality an authoritarian nationalist, and he does not have the support of the majority of the country. In fact, it is easy to assume that over half of the country actively dislikes him. That number certainly includes many who voted for him.

This situation could be a boon or it could be a disaster. Congressional Republicans would certainly feel more at ease resisting a highly unpopular president. On the other hand, Trump not being loved and adored will likely cause him to have temper tantrums with the full power and might of the United States behind him.  We are entering into uncharted territory for sure.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A House Divided (An Inauguration Eve Thought)

As I have mentioned on this blog my theory that the past twenty years or so have been a low-grade political civil war in this country. What we think of as the "red-blue" divide is actually an irrepressible conflict between two radically opposed visions of the nation. At a similar point in the 1850s, Abraham Lincoln declared that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." People often forget the accompanying line that "it will become all one thing or all the other." The union would endure, either as one with slavery throughout, or one where slavery was gone throughout.

The agenda of the Republicans, Trump, and his cabinet is plain to see. They want to make the country all one thing in their image. The low grade civil war will end when there is no more "red" or "blue" America because one vision has finally and definitively triumphed over the other.

We will either live in a country where health care is purely a commodity or where all have a right to it.

We will either live in a country where gay people are second class citizens or where they are free and equal members of society.

We will either live in a country where the votes of black people and others are suppressed or where they are encouraged.

We will either live in a country where the federal government plays no role in enforcing civil rights or a country where it does so vigorously.

We will either live in a country where women have no right or access to an abortion or a country where they do.

We will either live in a country where college education is increasingly unaffordable or a country where access to college for all is guaranteed.

We will either live in a country where climate science is rejected or one where it is acted upon.

We will either live in a country where immigrants are attacked and deported or one where they are protected and welcomed.

We will either live in a country where women are pushed into traditional roles or a country where they are given the support to flourish on their own terms.

We will either live in a country where schools are privatized or one with a robust public education system.

We will either live in a country that is white supremacist or one that provides equal rights and economic opportunity to all.

It will become all one thing or all the other. The right-wingers have decided to make their play to mold the country in their image. We must stop them, or lose having a country where any of the things we value and cherish matter anymore. The price of not fighting and fighting like hell as we are cast into the fire tomorrow is too high to pay.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Obama, Biden, Trump, Pence, and Masculinity

Watching president Obama's farewell address last week I was struck, after a year of hearing Trump's bloviating, at how he has always performed a very positive version of masculinity. For eight years boys around this country have had a great example of how to be a man. Obama has allowed himself to feel emotion in public, perhaps most famously during his speech after Sandy Hook. He showed similar emotion last week when talking about Michelle, his obvious respect and love were displayed for all to see. This was a man in a relationship of equals, not the usual politician with the smiling, prop wife. While Joe Biden still has a lot of his generation's male bravado and, well, handsy-ness, he has also displayed a similar relationship with Jill. And speaking of Biden, he and Obama have an obviously deep connection to each other. This is part of a positive masculinity where men can be emotionally vulnerable and honest with each other.

President Obama has also modeled how to confront one's enemies without resorting to aggression and anger. He has used humor many times, including in response to Trump's birther allegations. He does not engage in the kind of dick swinging that practically ever other president in my lifetime indulged in. I am thinking here of Reagan's "joke" about ordering the missiles to be fired at the Soviet Union, George HW Bush's TV attack on Bob Dole to counter his "whimpiness," or the innumerable examples of George W Bush swaggering like a two-bit cowboy ("smoke 'em out of their caves," "ride herd," "watch this drive," etc.)  Obama is what you could call a savvy nerd when it comes to his masculinity, the thing I basically aspire to be.

With Trump and Pence taking the White House, we are seeing two very different models of masculinity. Let's start with Pence, since he's the easier one. He represents patriarch masculinity. This kind of masculinity, usually wedded to religion and nostalgic and inaccurate views of the past, sees men as the unchallenged head of the family and leaders of society. They are there to protect women and children, but in a relationship that is hierarchical. This type of masculinity is also tied together with a painfully serious affect, as if nothing is ever to be a laughing matter. I know a lot of men who subscribe to this kind of masculinity back home, and they are almost always insufferable.

This type of masculinity, as limiting and toxic as it can be, is not nearly as poisonous as Trump's masculinity. Almost all the strains of negative masculinity are contained in his personality. As is usually the case, this wretched personality was fed by the manure of paternal neglect. With a loving father Trump may have just become a garden variety asshole, but by craving his father's never present approval, he (with all the money he had as an assist) went into full blown megalomania.

Trump does not have Pence's pretense of protecting women, home, and family. He has an obvious contempt for women, something clear to see even before the Access Hollywood tape came out. As I have written before, his version of masculinity sees women as beings to be conquered, controlled, and displayed, all the while being feared. But his attitude towards other men also betrays his toxic masculinity. He does not appear to have any close male friends. He is incapable of having friendship, since that involves a give and take of emotional support that he simply can't muster. Other men are to be belittled and dominated. The slightest criticism of him leads to angry tweetstorms and unhinged ranting. For him anger and violence are the only tools used when confronted by opponents.

I could never imagine Trump giving the kind of heartfelt dedication to Melania that Obama did to Michelle in a million years. I could not imagine a moment between Trump and Pence like the one we saw between Biden and Obama for a million more. We have enough toxic masculinity in our society as it is, from the soft patriarchal kind to the violent, psychopathic kind as it is. We don't need it modeled (and implicitly validated) by the new occupants of the White House. It's our job to push our boys and young men to something more positive.

Monday, January 16, 2017

What I Saw At The Rally

Yesterday there were several rallies held across the country to call for the preservation of the Affordable Care Act. The rally in Warren, Michigan, featuring Bernie Sanders got the most attention, but plenty of folks, like yours truly, attended other less grandiose rallies. Mine was held at the main ballroom of the Robert Treat Hotel in downtown Newark.

The east side of downtown Newark was quiet as always on a Sunday morning, but when we tentatively stepped through the doors of the building, I was immediately hit with a wall of body heat and a cacophony of voices. The inside of the building was ALIVE. There were people circulating petitions and assembling lists of attendees and generally a flurry of activity. I knew right away that this is something that I had been missing in my life, having last engaged in protest in a major way back in my grad school days.

And yes, the rally started half an hour late, and we had to corral our impatient daughters and eventually had to leave early to get them some lunch. But despite that, I really felt something good deep inside of me. It just felt good to occupy a space with people as concerned as I am about the future, and united in the desire to stop the Trump administration and its Congressional flunkies. I think it helped that this rally was organized primarily by unions. In my experience, union-organized events bring in a more diverse group of people, both in terms of class and race. The moral posturing and intellectual bullshit so prevalent in so many activist circles isn't here. Union people get to the point. Perhaps this is just my own social class prejudices showing, but when I am surrounded by people wearing SEIU shirts and Teamsters jackets I feel much more comfortable than at any protest that involves a drum circle or human microphone.

This event was also interesting in that it showed Democrats that their base is not so restive anymore. Senator Robert Menendez was one of the speakers, and there were several people there holding signs criticizing him for his vote against a Sanders-supported law that would open up importation of cheaper Canadian drugs. There was also plenty of booing when he came to speak. Those there to criticize him eventually relented, and he ended up giving a very fiery speech on the need to preserve the Affordable Care Act. Many speakers, including my former Representative, Albio Sires, openly stated, to the crowd's approval, that health care is a right. I fervently hope that out of the disaster that awaits us that bold statements like that will be Democratic Party's official position, and that those words be made into a reality.

That is something that people will fight for. I think what I saw yesterday was a sleeping giant awaking. A lot of the energy in the room had been directed last year towards the election, now it was freed of support for any one person. This is something that makes me very happy, partly because it should make the leadership of the Democratic party a little scared. At this rally I saw people who are enthusiastic about fighting back, and ready to put themselves out there. At one point I almost started crying, because it was the first time since November 9 that I have felt even a shred of hope for the future. If you are dreading the coming Trumpist nightmare, I beg you to get involved, if not for the good of the country, then at least for the health of your soul.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Billboard Top Ten January 13, 1973

We are currently embroiled in the biggest political scandal since Watergate. Richard Nixon's inauguration after being re-elected by a landslide in November was overshadowed by the Washington Post's stories about the break-in at the Watergate Hotel and potential cover-up. Similarly, Donald Trump will be taking office under suspicion that his campaign colluded with Russia. I wanted to do another top ten list, and figured this week forty four years ago was appropriate. Now, on with the countdown!

10. The Four Tops, "The Keeper Of The Castle"

By this point in the 1970s the Tops were far away from their Motown heyday, but still managing some hits. Their Holland-Dozier-Holland produced sound practically defined Motown, and they pushed a bunch of great pop songs off the assembly line as efficiently as Ford and Chevrolet. When Motown left Detroit for Los Angeles in 1972, echoing corporate America's growing abandonment of that city, the Tops stayed, and were picked up by ABC records. The wah-wah guitar intro was reminiscent of a blaxploitation movie of the time, but the lyrics are part of a genre you could call "patriarchal soul." Levi Stubbs sings not as the wounded lover as he once did, but as a solid family man. Their other big hit of the time, "Ain't No Woman Like The One I've Got" sounded a similar theme.

9. Elton John, "Crocodile Rock"

1972-1973 saw a huge nostalgia wave for original rock and roll (as opposed to rock.) Chuck Berry and Elvis would both be back on the charts, with "My Ding-a-Ling" and "Burning Love," respectively. 1973 was also the year that American Graffiti came out. Coming right at the end of the war in Vietnam and as the protest movements of the 1960s were fading, it reflected the usual fatuous longing for a supposedly innocent time that was anything but. "Crocodile Rock" is maybe the best of the nostalgia songs because it is self-aware, commenting on the silliness and simplicity of fifties music.

8. Curtis Mayfield, "Superfly"

Blaxploitation cinema created a lot of great soundtrack music, but Curtis Mayfield's soundtrack for Superfly was the best, in my opinion. He acts as a kind of Greek chorus, observing and commenting on the main character's drug dealing ways, neither celebrating or condemning someone who's "just trying to get over." The music just exudes cool, and Mayfield's falsetto was never used to greater effect.

7. Johnny Rivers, "Rockin' Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu"

Here's yet another nostalgia song, this one from perhaps the most significant hitmaker of the 1960s to be forgotten today. Rivers was known as "the king of the covers," which probably hurt his reputation as artists were more and more expected to perform original material. This song at least is copying the spirit of old rock and roll rather than trying to imitate its sound. A rollicking good time.

6. Loggins and Messina, "Your Mama Don't Dance"

And here we with yet another rock and roll nostalgia tune. This time was just sick with duos (Seals and Croft, Zager and Evans, etc.) but Loggins and Messina were the most paradoxical. Messina was of the past, Loggins the future. Messina had been in seminal sixties band Buffalo Springfield and in country rockers Poco, while Loggins would go on to pioneer yacht rock then later rule the world of 80s movie soundtracks. This song sounds like none of that, with a pronounced backbeat and yakety sax. It sounds like something a roadhouse band might jam on, but it's a little too self-consciously nostalgic to really work.

5. Donna Fargo, "Funny Face"

In the 1970s country music began crossing over to the pop charts. Fargo's got twang in her voice and there are faint echoes of the honky tonk in the piano. Later on, the slide guitar sidles right on in. As a country song it's pretty mediocre, but maybe that's why it was able to cross over so easily. A harbinger of bad things to come.

4. Gilbert O'Sullivan, "Clair"

This twee singer from across the pond was never as popular stateside as in the Commonwealth. The song is evidently dedicated to a little girl, but at least it's not creepy. The bounce is reminiscent of the Beatles, but the accompaniment is not all that interesting. O'Sullivan does at least give it his usual sheen of resigned melancholy. I miss the depressing undertones pop music used to have before it all became about partying.

3. Billy Paul, "Me And Mrs Jones"

This has got to be, without a doubt, the best song about adultery ever to make the top ten. Paul has such a tenderness in his voice, the emotion just drips out of the grooves of this record. I've always found his spiraling lead into the chorus to be one of the most beautiful things on oldies radio. The backing music has that impeccably lush yet not overdone quality that Philadelphia International made a trademark in the 1970s. Reflecting the sexual revolution, the listener feels sympathy with the singer's anguish, and the cuckolded husband does not make an appearance.

2. Stevie Wonder, "Superstition"

This is probably my favorite Stevie Wonder hit, and it comes from my favorite Stevie Wonder album, Talking Book. Its mood of darkness and warning fits so well for the age of Watergate. It's easy to forget that darkness, however, since this song is so wonderfully funky. Wonder has the groove absolutely locked in, and the horns are disarmingly tight and sound like a million dollars. The mood of confusion he describes also fit with the slow demise of the sixties social movements and counterculture, when many of its members drifted into communes and cults. Today I take this song as a warning against that kind of drift.

1. Carly Simon, "You're So Vain"

Well, this is just about the perfect #1 for a countdown list inspired by the impending ascension of Cheeto Mussolini. This is surely one of the best kiss-offs to hit the top ten, both due to the mystery of who its subject could be and due to the arch putdown of the hook: "you probably think this song is about you." It certainly fit with the growth of women's liberation movements in the early 1970s, as Simon is showing a former lover just how much his male arrogance underestimated her abilities. I've always liked this song because I always like hearing an asshole get his due. Here's hoping the next four years is full of that.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Why Professors Are The New Target For The Authoritarian Nationalists

Don't call them conservatives. Don't call them populists. Call them what they are: authoritarian nationalists.

With the embrace of Trumpism the Republican party has fully become a nationalist party as much as Alternative for Germany or The National Front. They have melded their preexisting free-marketeering more fully onto a nationalist message, evidenced this week by new bills in the state legislatures of Missouri and Iowa to strip tenure from professors there. The politician pushing the bill in Missouri has called tenure "un-American."

Academia is one of the few institutions in this country where the left has any level of real power. And the right, as I have been at labored pains to point out, sees themselves as the "real America" that must eradicate all "un-American" elements from society. They cast a wide net. They want immigrants deported, Muslims banned, African Americans terrorized by killer cops, gays in the closet, and trans people invisible. The professors who promote points of view that contradict this must have their power broken and to live in fear, and that is exactly what these nationalists want. They want loyal, obedient subjects with enough technical knowledge to run the machines and perform their jobs, but too stupid and ignorant to be able or willing to criticize the system that dominates them.

In former times they justified these anti-academic policies via cost cutting and efficiency. "Why are we offering arts majors when we need more coders?" Now they have crossed the line into wanting those oppose them crushed directly rather than indirectly. Without tenure there are going to be mass, wholesale firings as entire departments are scrapped, and any individual professor who teaches classes on race, class, or gender will be targeted by some dipshit in the state legislature. We will have the perfect intersection of austerity and nationalism. The states want to slash non-technical education anyway, now they can have the icing on the cake by destroying the careers of left intellectuals.

In other nations where authoritarian nationalists have come to power, intellectuals and academia have never failed to be a big target. It's time for academics who've been in the lifeboats as their adjunct brethren drown around them to wake the fuck up.