Saturday, February 28, 2015

All Hail Podcasts

In the last year there is perhaps no mode of popular culture that has taken up more of my time than podcasts.  I listen to them during my hour plus commute, while I walk the dog, cook dinner, mow the lawn, shovel the walk, or drive my daughters around town trying to get them to nap on the weekend.  Where I once listened exclusively to music, now I listen to podcasts.  Their number has proliferated to a point that I am sure that there are amazing podcasts out there totally in line with my sensibilities that I will never get a chance to listen to.

I've been trying to put my finger on why I like podcasts so much, and I think it's mostly because they walk a road paved by radio, but are able to do some interesting stuff that you can't do on radio.  Like radio, podcasts work exclusively with sound, and the voice of a person speaking directly to the listener.  There is something very primal and immediate about that.  Unlike radio, podcasts don't have to concern themselves with the lowest common denominator.  For example, there is a great podcast devoted entirely to Hammer horror films (which I listened to incessantly last October), which would be too obscure to make it even on the tiniest of community radio stations.  Podcasts also don't have to break as often (or not at all) for commercials, and listening to them pod-style means I get to fast forward right through them anyway (sorry, Squarespace.)

The format can let podcasters give an episode as much, or little, attention it deserves.  Radio shows have to fit certain time parameters, meaning they are often crammed with filler, or that they can't fully explore their subject matter in the time allotted.  Podcasts can be admiringly obsessive.  Case in point: the film podcast The Projection Booth just did a SEVEN HOUR podcast this week about Conan the Barbarian that included interviews with several people who worked on the film and its sequels, along with a long talk with a biographer of Robert E. Howard, Conan's creator.  To my surprise, I was actually able to listen to the whole thing over the course of a few days.  The hosts are great at translating their love of film to the listener, and at doing the kinds of in-depth interviewing that actually illuminate, rather than help promote whatever new thing the guest is doing.  After hearing it I actually want to read some of Howard's original stories, something I never would have done had I not heard this episode.

The kind of freedom podcasting affords also extends to the words that podcasters can use.  Comedy is less interesting the more it is restrained, and comedy flourishes in the podcastverse largely because comedians can pretty much say whatever they want to say.  The doesn't just make the conversations funnier, but also much more real and less studied.  On the best episodes of Chris Hardwick's Nerdist podcast I feel like I have been given an invaluable opportunity to eavesdrop on a conversation between interesting people.  Recently my friend Chauncey DeVega did an interview with the great author Joe Lansdale, and the result was something about ten times more compelling than what you'd hear on NPR.  There was a refreshing lack of bullshit on display that normally saturates the official media.

Like blogging, podcasting shows the democratic potential of the internet, and also exposes the emperor's lack of clothes.  Just as there are many bloggers out there writing more intelligent takes on current affairs than well-paid pundits at major newspapers and magazines, there are podcasters who are much better at telling stories and producing compelling interviews than highly paid radio hosts.   It is an exciting world using the limited yet compelling instrument of the human voice, and I hope that it continues to surprise me in good ways.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Track of the Week: Al Wilson "Show and Tell"

Working crummy jobs in my younger days inadvertently exposed me to a lot of good music I might not have otherwise heard.  The best example is a job I had shelving books at a library in Chicago.  While doing my daily rounds I would listen to my walkman, which was so old that it ate tapes.  For that reason I tuned to the radio while I worked.  This was the late 1990s, so I would have listened to the "alternative" station, except that they had a horrific morning show anchored by a right wing asshole who called himself "Mancow."  (So much for "alternative.")  I started going up the dial a little, and hit on an R&B and soul oldies station that played music from the 60s and 70s.

This was music I'd always liked when I heard it, but now I became obsessed.  I sought out Sly and the Family Stone discs and practically burned holes in them.  I learned that disco had its highpoints, and savored Donna Summer and Sylvester.  Thelma Houston's "Baby Don't Leave Me This Way" secretly became one of my favorite songs of all time.  I also learned one hit wonders of 70s soul I never knew before, and of these songs I think I loved "Show and Tell" by Al Wilson the most.

He had been a veteran of the music scene without having a hit to his credit when, in 1973, he took a song sloughed off by Johnny Mathis to the top of the charts.  "Show and Tell" benefits in the first place from the exquisite 70s soul backing, intricate and slightly mannered a la The Spinners, but with just enough of a dose of funk thrown into it.  Of course, Wilson deserves a lot of credit for his emotive performance.  He starts so subtly and restrained, then sublimely takes the "oh oh ooooohhh" into the chorus and hits the higher register with an effortless beauty.

It's a true love song, in that Wilson sings of someone who has completed his life almost beyond the capacity of words to say.  "Here is the soul/ of which you're taken control" is such a simple yet meaningful way of stating that feeling.  This is a love song for adults, not the swooning to the moon in June stuff of teen pop music.  It expresses more the adult knowledge of life's unfairness and harshness, and how lucky and important it is to have the right person in your life to help you get through it.  I'm not sure songs like this even exist anymore.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Adjunct Walk-Out, Long Overdue

The academic labor situation has been a wretched garbage fire for some time now, one of the many reasons that I got out.  Things were bad even before the crash of 2008, with departments not replacing tenure-track lines and adjuncts becoming the norm.  The crash then allowed conservatives to slash hard at higher ed budgets, and to give university leaders cover for hiring more part timers, and treating the full timers like dirt.  I went from being a "visiting assistant professor" to a tenure-track assistant professor in 2008, right at the point the crisis hit.  Suddenly professors were told they weren't getting any raises, and that we were lucky not to be furloughed, as others were in states like Georgia and Illinois.  Travel money and library funding, meager to begin with, got the axe, while enrollments increased without additional hiring, meaning bigger classes and more grading.  Adjunctification is part of this larger story, and casualizing labor and driving wages lower via adjunct labor does few favors for those on the tenure track, even if many of them cling to lifeboater status.

Of course, adjuncts are the laborers who've suffered and continue to suffer the most from the big squeeze in higher ed in the past forty years.  They work for ridiculously low pay, often sub-minimum wage if they calculate their hours, as a friend of mine once did.  They take this pay without health benefits, job security, or a place at the table when it comes to shared governance.  I once worked in a department where contingent faculty like myself taught a majority of the classes, but were barred from faculty meetings.  All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others, I guess.  This happens to them despite being highly educated individuals with all kinds of talents, those talents being squandered because they are not seen as having anything to offer beyond cheap labor.  It is a disgusting, rotten, intolerable system.  When I tell people outside of academe about it, they are seriously horrified, unaware that a PhD teaching four classes of college students a semester could be getting paid less than a student work study.  (This was the experience of another friend.)

Tomorrow adjuncts at several universities will be walking off the job for National Adjunct Walkout Day, a day that is long overdue.  The only way that the current exploitative system will change is through direct action.  Politicians in both political parties have been slashing higher ed, and only care about cutting costs, while the general public is mostly unaware of the academic labor situation.  The most powerful thing a worker can do is withhold their labor, and if enough academic workers do this, the world (and their employers) will have to take notice.

It's not that far-fetched.  As a graduate student I participated in a walkout to secure a union for TAs and other graduate student workers.  We faced lengthy court battles and an intransigent administration, but once we stopped working and picketed the campus for two days, that completely changed the dynamic, and they eventually caved.  Just as with adjuncts, we did not have even close to complete solidarity, but if you get enough people out there downing tools and making noise, that doesn't matter.  My participation in that walkout thirteen years ago was probably one of the most meaningful things I ever did in my life.  It was tremendously liberating to feel like my peers and I were actually having our voices heard, and actually making the upper administration listen to us.  I wish the adjuncts who walk out tomorrow all the best, and hope that those who aren't adjuncts respect the picket lines.  The future of academic labor, and academia itself, depends upon it.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Turn Of The Eighties Culture

Today I was flipping channels and landed on a documentary about the "Miracle On Ice," but from the perspective of the Soviet team.  It was all very fascinating and well done, but along with that, seeing the old footage gave me some uncanny feelings.  This was not about the hockey game itself, which wasn't on my radar, but small things, like the way people dressed, the picture quality of the television broadcasts, and the haircuts.  I was born in 1975, meaning that the period between roughly 1979 and 1982 was the first time I can properly remember.  Seeing that footage suddenly reminded me of what the world looked like when I first became aware of it.

I also think of that period of time being its own particular cultural and political moment.  The economy crashed, oil prices and inflation shot up, insanely high interest rates were the response to the inflation, Jimmy Carter's presidency floundered and Reagan came storming in to power with the backing of newly inflamed religious conservatives.  Iranian students took America hostage, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the Cold War got hot again.  The spirit of 60s appeared dead and the conservative revaluation of values in ascendancy, but still far from confirmed.

Popular culture went though some interesting convulsions as well.  Disco went from being the king of the radio to an embarrassing example of the tackiness of the 70s by 1982.  I remember a kid in the first grade who had inherited an older sibling's Bee Gees lunch box, and it seemed like something that came from another planet.  At the same time, the first rap records came out in those years, culminating in Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's epochal "The Message" in 1982.

That difference between say, "Night Fever" and "The Message" speaks to a larger trend I've detected in turn of the eighties culture, namely a harder edge than what came before in the shaggy seventies and what came later in the day-glo 80s.  The original Star Wars trilogy is the case in point.  1977 brought Star Wars' inspiring tale of rebels taking down a technological terror, and 1983's Return of the Jedi ended with Ewoks yub-yubbing in triumph, while 1980's The Empire Strikes Back ended with Han frozen in carbonite, and Luke emotionally devastated and dismembered after losing a lightsaber duel to the monstrous Vader, now revealed to be his father.

Or to go back to music, look at what became of the punk movement.  The loud, brash swaggering sound of 1976-1977 had faded into brooding postpunk like Joy Division.  Their music is made for stewing at home on a rainy March day, not kicking against the pricks.  Similarly, in 1979 Elvis Costello went from his straight ahead rock sound on his first two albums to a kind of sideways, paranoid pop music on Armed Forces.  The Talking Heads, a product of CBGBs, sound claustrophobic on 1979's Fear of Music, and moved in more obscure (and even more rewarding) directions on 1980's Remain in Light.

Much the same was happening in mainstream rock music.  The bold burst of life on Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" was nowhere to be seen on 1980's "The River" or 1982's Nebraska album.  The Boss wrote songs of being crushed by working class life amidst deindustrialization, a long long way from being "sprung from cages on highway 9 chrome wheeled fuel injected and stepping out over the line."  Fleetwood Mac vacated their era-defining sound from 1977's Rumours for something more obscure and opaque on 1979's Tusk.  Pink Floyd's increasing flight from their psychedelic roots culminated in the hard-edged, socially critical Wall album.  The once fey and music-hall inflected Kinks put out hard rocking records, including a take on the current economic crisis called Low Budget. 

The advent of MTV in 1981 would soon assist in making much of this style of rock music obsolete.  Before that, the 1979-1982 period saw the end of the Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, and Led Zeppelin.  At the same time, what was to replace it wasn't entirely formed just yet.  If anything, the turn of the eighties is a liminal period, culturally.

The trends of edge and liminality I think can also be seen in the world of cinema, and not just in the aforementioned Empire Strikes Back.  New Hollywood's young directors were getting long in tooth and at the end of their tethers.  Robert Altman went to Malta and made the flop Popeye and spent much of the next decade well below the radar.  Coppola finally released Apocalypse Now! in 1979, years after production began, and really a product of an earlier time.  In any case, that was the last important film he ever made.  William Friedkin released Cruising in 1980, infamous for its insinuations of homophobia, and the last major film he would make in a long while.  Peter Bogdanovich continued to drop off the map.  Warren Beatty, a fellow traveler in this group, made his epic Reds in 1981, which fittingly for a film coming out in the midst of the Reagan revolution, portrayed the political radicalism of the past, perhaps implying its weakness in the presence.  Kubrick predated New Hollywood, and his 1980 horror classic The Shining had him back in a harder edged mode after the lushness of Barry Lyndon.

George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg were the two exceptions to this, of course.  In many respects Spielberg pointed to way forward into the 80s.  His 1979 flop 1941 has an air of shaggy 70s-ness about it.  Not so 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark, or 1982's ET, both massive hits.  The 80s would be the decade of the well-made blockbuster, something Spielberg was showing the way to.  They would also be a time of a new kind of comedy film with jokier, raunchier attributes.  That way forward was pretty evident in 1980's Caddyshack and Airplane!

Speaking of ways forward, we can bring this full circle by talking about the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980.  The massive outpouring of nationalism it occasioned displayed the deep wells of chauvinism that Reagan would profitably exploit and which would be a salient feature of the 1980s, and pretty much every era since.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Track of the Week: Rolling Stones "Before They Make Me Run"

Keith after his Toronto drug bust in 1978, when they were about to make him run

Four years ago, in the midst of a rather difficult time, I made the decision to abandon academia and strike out into the world of independent schools.  It felt like a risky decision, but being 1500 miles from my wife and working in a dysfunctional environment in an isolated, culturally bereft town was driving me nuts.  During that time, a few songs were in heavy rotation in my stereo, and "Before They Make Me Run" was one of them.  The chorus just said it all: "I'm gonna walk before they make me run."

It's a song sung by Keith, and he brings his customary tumbledown attitude and sly style, with a lot less affect than Jagger.  The character he voices appears to have stumbled in from a Tom Waits tune.  He talks of working the "sideshows and bars" of "Route 22" and saying "good-bye to another good friend" who got taken down by all the "booze and pills and powders."  Richards' voice as he relates this story can only be described as a drawling sneer, and it's perfect.  Musically it moves along well, aided by the fact that Richards, not Bill Wyman, plays bass on it.  Based on the other songs where Richards plays that instrument, I'm pretty convinced that he could have been one of rock music's greatest bass players had he not been a guitarist.  They song moves and grooves with fluidity, and Ron Wood provides some wonderful slide guitar touches.

"Before They Make Me Run" is one of the last great Stones songs before they turned into an oldies act during the great American Reagan-era cash-in.  The funkier groove that Keith and co. seemed to pick up in the polyester decade often seemed wasted on half-baked, tossed off songs, but this tune is a rare exception.  In any case, I have a soft spot in my heart for a song that gave me the strength to "find my way to heaven, 'cause I did my time in hell."

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Why The Oklahoma History Wars Matter

I wonder if Ida B. Wells-Barnett's crusade against lynching is "too negative" to be taught in Oklahoma, a state where 40 black men were lynched

Every year I start my American history survey off with a discussion of the controversies surrounding the teaching of the subject.  The students usually get really engaged, and it certainly gives the topic some immediacy to show how it has become a political battleground. Recent years have provided a wealth of examples, from Texas to Colorado.  Now Oklahoma is getting in on the act with legislation that would not only ban the teaching of Advanced Placement US History in the schools, but mandate that 58 specific documents be taught, including three Reagan speeches and the Ten Commandments.  Evidently the AP curriculum, which is written by eggheads in New York City, is too negative in its take on American history for Oklahoma's taste.

It would be easy to laugh this off as another example of red state conservatives engaging in the usual culture war script, or a sideshow to more pressing issues.  I think that would be a mistake, because the attempt to influence how children are taught about their nation's history has enormous implications.  If students are taught that their nation has always been great and just, they will think that embodies these qualities in the present.  If they are taught that America was on the right side of every war, they will not resist new calls to arms.  If struggles for racial, economic, and gender equality don't appear to exist in the past, they won't seem all that important for the present, either.  If redlining and residential segregation never appear in the unit on postwar America students will be prone to seeing ghettoes as natural and unintentional, and their denizens to be unworthy of empathy.

One reason I love history so much is that it provides a trenchant standpoint of critique, and that's what makes it so dangerous for those invested in the status quo.  I still remember the subversive feelings of confusion I had when I first read actual historical accounts of the middle ages and Reformation, when I learned that that Catholic church's past was very different from what it had led me to believe.  I felt much the same reading Malcolm X's biography during study hall in junior year, realizing the fatuousness of the version of American history that had been foisted on me.  The defenders of the status quo, whether it be in church or politics, had used their distortions of the past to give themselves an air of infallibility, and now I knew just how wrong that was.

Historical knowledge is the greatest bullshit detector of them all.  Calls for the newest war don't look so inspiring once you know America's imperial past.  The slayings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner don't look so random and accidental if you know the history of racist violence undertaken by the authorities against people of color.  Scorched earth libertarianism looks mighty stupid if you know how that worked out the first time during the Gilded Age.

There is a very powerful segment of society that relies on the masses being ignorant of a broader, more historical perspective on the present.  To the teachers of Oklahoma with the guts to give your students the real thing, straight no chaser despite your state government's mandate, I salute you.  If they want to assign Reagan speeches, make sure they read the ones full of dog whistle race baiting.  If they want students to read the Ten Commandments, then you can keep reminding students of the times that our leaders have broken them, from the Ludlow Massacre to the Trail of Tears.  What is Western Expansion but murder, theft, and the coveting others' goods?

Monday, February 16, 2015

President's Day Stuff

President's Day has got to be the lamest of this country's national holidays.  Are we celebrating all presidents?  Does that mean I have to honor execrable villains like Nixon, Jackson, and Polk?  Or for that matter, blundering mediocrities like Benjamin Harrison, Franklin Pierce, and most of the others? For that matter, what about all those enslaver presidents?

I've often felt that this holiday ought to be eliminated, and that we have a holiday to recognize emancipation on Juneteenth (which would also be an official holiday commemorating the Union victory in the Civil War.)  While we still have it, though, I'd like to make some use of it.  Here are some moments in presidential history that we can be proud of and that can give us inspiration for political battles today.

FDR's "I Welcome Their Hatred" Speech
In 1936, as FDR ran for re-election, he took on his wealthy opponents with language that is simply not allowed today.  In this famous speech at the DNC at Madison Square Garden, Roosevelt attacked to monied interests, telling the crowd that "We know now that government by organized money, is just as dangerous as government by organized mobs."  If that wasn't enough, he reminds the crowd that big business and the banks "are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!"  These days politicians are scared to death of alienating their wealthy benefactors, and that might be why progressive legislation is so difficult to pass.

Eisenhower's Farewell Address
While Ike's politics were more conservative than mine, I must express my admiration for his farewell address.  He warned the nation of the growing power of the military industrial complex, a warning that has sadly not been well heeded.  Ike, like most soldiers, was no war monger, since he knew well the costs of conflict.  The chicken-hawks baying for blood today evidently don't.

LBJ's Speech For The Voting Rights Act
The film Selma has revived the debate about Johnson's role in helping or hindering the civil rights movement.  Despite some of his failures (the seating of Mississippi's segregated delegation at the 1964 DNC, for example), Johnson did push to get both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act passed.  The story goes that he decided to push on the Civil Rights Act right after taking office, a move some of his aides found too bold.  LBJ is said to have replied, "what's a presidency for, anyway?"  That's a question I wish Bill Clinton had asked himself more often.

Lincoln's Second Inaugural
This brief speech eclipses even the Gettysburg Address.  In it Lincoln discusses the Civil War as God's punishment on a guilty nation for the crime of slavery.  Despite the horrific loss of life, Lincoln acknowledges that even this level of carnage does not yet match the suffering inflicted by centuries of slavery.  Instead of the empty nationalism peddled by most inaugural speeches, Lincoln reminded his audience of the nation's shame.  Such truth telling is no longer permissible.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

America's Sprawl Albatross

One of history's greatest values as a practice is that it explains how the world we live in came to be.  I have been reading up recently on suburbanization and its attendant politics, and that history has a lot to tell us.  Most people tend to look at the ways our metropolitan areas are structured and laid out and assume that the the suburban sprawl and urban cores just happened to form that way naturally.  Of course, our built environment is in actuality the intentional result of reams of legislation and trillions of dollars.

Decisions made in the recent past are currently having a massively deleterious effect on the present, when it comes to our cities and suburbs.  The automobile was elevated to an exalted throne where neighborhoods and treasure would be sacrificed to it, rail transport left for dead, economic and racial segregation ruthlessly enabled, and sprawl encouraged from sea to shining sea.

The bill is coming due.  The millions of car exhaust pipes spewing carbon monoxide now threaten the very existence of life on the planet.  The roads and bridges built to handle the cars are crumbling while the political will to raise the taxes necessary to fix them has disappeared.  Neglected mass transit systems can't pick up the slack, and have their own infrastructure nightmares.  In cities like New York gentrification is pushing residents into the Sprawl and making urban housing increasingly less affordable. (Which is one reason why I live in north New Jersey, and why practically all the new people I meet in my town moved here from Brooklyn.)

The giant swaths of sprawl surrounding our cities are becoming a dead weight that cannot be shed.  To maintain the current system would be insanely expensive and destructive, of course, but hardly anyone in positions of power is willing to completely upend the current system that rewards sprawl and punishes concentration. That would mean dethroning the car and promoting mass transit at moon shot levels of commitment, something that will never happen.  Instead we'll just keep on muddling through in yet another chapter in a future volume about the downfall of an empire that in a moment of supreme hubris willfully destroyed its own cities.

Every now and then my wife and I drive into Newark via Springfield Avenue, and I look around at a city that was abandoned by the state and by white New Jerseyans only fifty years after it had been so dramatically built up.  What has happened to Newarkers since the 1950s is a brutal injustice, but it has been a tremendously wasteful one at that.  A perfectly fine city was gutted by "urban renewal" and its people left to the wolves while the highways that ripped neighborhoods to shreds were used by white suburbanites to speed on through from the suburbs to Manhattan without having to so much as stop at an intersection in Newark.  That failed, wasteful, and unjust social experiment has yet to be repudiated, and sixty years later remains an albatross around this nation's neck.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Jon Stewart And The Left's New Pundits

Jon Stewart announced his impending retirement from The Daily Show this week, and I was quite surprised to see a lot of gloating from the professional/academic Left on Twitter.  In general his critics seemed to be blaming Stewart for the failures of the Left, whether it be because Stewart's cynical viewpoint encouraged 'anti-politics," or because he wasn't radical enough.

I find this all quite amusing, since Stewart is a comedian who hosts a show on basic cable.  Trying to blame him for the fact that the radical Left is mostly incapable of making a political argument without resorting to either academic jargon or to insufferable moral self-righteousness is pretty silly.  (I'm a pragmatic social democrat, just for the record.)  In terms of mainstream politics, the fact that the Democratic party is unable to get their base motivated in off-year elections has little or nothing to do with Stewart's show.  Yes, Stewart often used his "I'm just a comedian" defense as a way to deflect political criticism in ways that could be questionable, but that hardly merits the take-downs I've seen over the last week.

I see something deeper at work, something I've noticed more now that I am engaging more fully with Twitter.  There is a a growing Leftist punditocracy on that site, one that is desperately hoping to overtake the old one.  For that reason they usually save their biggest attacks not for conservatives, but for established liberals.  Just witness the firestorm of Schadenfreude over the changes at The New Republic.  Don't get me wrong, those liberals need to be held to account.  At the same time, however, the intensity and nature of the attacks often seems to come from a place of competition.  Stewart is the liberal voice with the greatest level of respect and biggest following in America today, so of course he's a target for the Left's new pundit class.  Take for instance Jamelle Bouie's piece in Slate.  I normally really like what he has to say, but this article takes Stewart to task for being a pundit.  What exactly is Bouie then?

The new pundits want the place of the old pundits, pure and simple.  That desire is transparent.  From a careerist standpoint I guess that makes sense, but the whole thing has made me less and less interested in what the rising pundit class thinks.  It's been especially difficult to go on Twitter and in the Leftist blogosphere and see people trying to tear others down for their own benefit, and pass it off as truth telling.  Blogger Freddie DeBoer is a case in point.  (I only mention him by name because he trolled this blog once upon a time.)  He seems to have it in for the other prominent Left folks on Twitter (which he mostly steers clear of), based on his long blog posts attacking Adam Kotsko and Jeet Heer by name in rather insulting and misleading terms.

I'll stop there to avoid committing the same sin of character assassination.

While people on the Left are expending all their energy dumping on the liberal figure who's had the most effective cultural influence in my lifetime, the Right is busy raising close to a billion dollars for the Koch brothers.  Maybe, just maybe, a late night talk show host's lack of ideological purity isn't the biggest issue that the Left is facing these days.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Track of the Week: The War on Drugs "Under the Pressure"

Lost in the Dream by The War On Drugs was by far my favorite album of last year.  It has an amazing atmosphere that I am always glad to find myself (excuse the expression) lost in.  The production is reminiscent of the 1980s with the worst excesses toned down: airy synthesizers, reverby guitar, echoey piano, and metronomic drums.  Singer and composer Andrew Granduciel's has a bit of raspy Bob Dylan in its grain, making "Under the Pressure" sound like a lost outtake from Oh Mercy.

"Under the Pressure" kicks off the album and sets the mood.  Although this is hardly a barn burner, the tempo is fast and insistent, and Granduciel lets out a few "whoos."  I find myself listening to it a lot in the morning, riding the train into New York City with the sun barely peaking over the horizon of the New Jersey swamps.  It's such a beautiful song, a kind of morning prayer as I head off to work at the start of another day.

TS Eliot was wrong.  April is by no means the cruelest month, February's got it beat by a country mile.  Winter has been here for months, and now it is getting colder than ever at a time when my body is crying out for spring.  Music is one my healthier means of surviving it, and when I listen to The War On Drugs, I feel a kind of spiritual warmth.  Rarely have I found music this theraputic for this trying time of the year.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Low Rent Cable Commercial Memories

It's hard to believe that I was so impressed with cable back in the 80s.  We only had about thirty channels, compared to today's hundreds, and most of them were full of bad World War II movies and syndicated reruns.  (It's no wonder MTV had a leg up, since they had outsiders paying all the money to create the content.)  The commercials on cable were also suitably low rent, full of all kinds of weird gadgets, doo-hickeys, and music compilations all magically priced at $19.99 plus $4.95 shipping and handling.  Many of those commercials were more memorable than the stuff I was watching at the time.  Here's a sampling.

A friend posting the link to Freedom Rock on Facebook set off this blog post.  I grew up in such an isolated place that standard classic rock music wasn't that easy to come by anymore in the late 80s-early 90s, and so this commercial's music intrigued me, even if I spent most of my time laughing hysterically at the burnout hippie characters promoting it.  Their counterculture vibe also seemed strange when compared to the album's patriotic cover motif.

Not only did cable let you buy music that you couldn't get in stores, it also sold cleaning products with miraculous powers.  If the commercials were to be believed, Didi Seven had magical qualities that no stain could ever stand up to.  I wondered if this stuff was made out of hydrochloric acid or something.

Without Zamfir, how would I ever have known about the sublime beauty of the pan flute?


Aw, Sy Sperling.  As a child of Nebraska his Nuu Yawk accent greatly amused me, as did the fact that his miracle hair grow product had its own newsletter.  Remember, he's not just the president, he's also a client.  I'm sure that gave a lot of balding men great confidence in the product.

Before Alfonso Ribeiro was Carlton, he was a break-dancing machine.  Not only did you get an instructional book and double-lp dance music compilation with your order, but a sweet breakin' pad too.  I have to admit I found this product rather tempting.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

What "Socially Liberal But Fiscally Conservative" Really Means

Since my teen years I've noticed that behind all of the partisan warfare at the top of the political spectrum, there is a certain kind of untapped consensus.  I don't know how many people I've met who describe themselves as "socially liberal but fiscally conservative."  I usually hear this from people who are rather disengaged from politics, mostly because their opinion is so embedded in the way things are done that there's no reason for them to get involved.  On the one hand, gay marriage is becoming the law of the land, on the other, state governments have been slashing social spending, with Wisconsin, Louisiana, and Kansas being recent notable examples.  Sure there are anti-abortion fanatics and social democrats still out there, but both groups are highly marginal these days.

I am currently reading Matthew Lassiter's The Silent Majority, a history of suburban politics in the postwar South, and I am beginning to see the historical antecedents of the modern day "socially liberal but politically conservative" cliche.  He focuses in on affluent white suburbanites in cities like Atlanta and Charlotte who opposed the white supremacist "massive resistance" policy intending to halt school desegregation by closing down all of the public schools.  These suburbanites instead proposed to save the public schools by allowing for only token integration while maintaining residential segregation.  They found the out and out bigoted racism of Lester Maddox and his ilk to be distasteful, but were themselves not inclined to challenge the structures of institutional racism.  In fact, by maintaining local school districts in highly segregated living areas, they were actively maintaining institutional racism, all while proclaiming its "colorblind" nature.

When I hear the socially liberal/fiscally conservative crowd today, I can't help but to see the similarities.  They are okay with legalized marijuana, abortion rights, and gay rights, mostly because that does not cost them a thing.  At the same time, they are not at all interested in income inequality, institutional racism, lack of health care access, and any other social injustice that would require wealth redistribution to rectify.  The ghettoes do not concern them, nor does the fact that students who live in poorer areas have a much lower quality of education than their own children bother them.  In fact, they secretly like it that way.  Deep down they just want to maintain their middle class existence with as little bother and as low of taxes as possible, all while keeping others below them at bay.  (I've never heard anyone who is socially liberal/politically conservative ever complain about the costs of policing or imprisonment.)  They can then turn around and pat themselves on the back for not hating gays and being cool with weed.

This new silent consensus is of monumental importance, and people have been getting away with this purposefully obfuscating belief for quite some time.  They need to be called on it.  When someone tells you, with the usual glint of pride "I'm socially liberal but fiscally conservative," ask them what they really mean by that.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Is It Time To Bring Back Multipurpose Stadiums?

Olympic Stadium in Montreal, what the future looked like in 1976

While baseball fans tend to debate new innovations to the game, there is one recent change that has received almost universal acclaim: the growth of baseball-specific stadiums.  When I first started following baseball as a child the game was played in so-called "ashtray" stadiums like Busch, Veterans, Three Rivers, Jack Murphy, and Riverfront, and in domes like the Kingdome, Metrodome, Astrodome,   The Chicago White Sox started the trend towards baseball specific stadiums with their new park in the early 90s, but things really took off after the Orioles built Camden Yards, a beauty that made retro touches all the rage.

Having been there, it is easy to see why.  It feels like a much older park than it is, and the brick warehouse behind the stadium gives it an old-timey backdrop.  Of all the parks I've been to, Wrigley is the only one with a better character.  Several other teams followed suit, some with more success than others.  However, it is taken as an article of faith that fan experience has been improved by most teams with new parks, and I have little reason to doubt it based on the ones I've been to.

At times, however, I wonder if this has come at too high a price.  Owners have used the new stadium arms race to demand that cities build them new parks, or else.  How many cities and states have financed stadiums while cutting back on essential services?  How many of those parks will be considered "obsolete" in twenty years, bringing a new round of debt and threats?  Just look at Atlanta, where the Braves will be moving into a new stadium in Cobb County before Turner Field is even twenty years old.  I am willing to bet that before too long many of the teams who had new parks built for them will want either major renovations or new stadiums.

For some perspective, think about the politics and values that multipurpose stadiums represent, versus the new ones.  Those multipurpose structures were built during the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when belief in publicly-owned institutions had yet to waver.  They also reflected a midcentury belief in emphasizing efficiency through maximum usefulness.  This philosophy did have its drawbacks, just look at Penn Station, an afterthought sitting beneath Madison Square Garden and an office building.  However, think about the cost savings of not having to build multiple stadiums.  Yes the sight lines aren't as nice, but perhaps money for a better baseball fan experience is better spent on roads and schools.

The new stadiums coincide with the ascendance of our current neoliberal model.  While the public still finances the new stadiums, they don't really see the profits from them.  As always, the debts are public and the profits are private.  Just as companies threaten to move to the Sun Belt or overseas if they aren't paid ransom, baseball teams threaten to find a more gullible city if they don't get a free stadium.

Do I prefer watching games at, say Minute Maid Park rather than the Astrodome?  You bet.  It's just that if teams want that cute new ballpark with a flagpole in the outfield and train that toots after home runs, they should pay for it.  If not, they should accept playing in a bland, multipurpose venue that will save the city money.  If the last few years of economic turmoil have shown us anything, it's that our sense of priorities is completely out of whack.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What Teaching High School Students Has Taught Me About College Students

I taught in higher education for almost ten years before becoming a high school teacher: three and a half as a TA, one year as a graduate instructor, two years as a visiting assistant professor, and three years as an assistant professor.  I taught at large state institutions, a flagship Big Ten school in grad school and regional state universities afterward.  While I loved teaching undergraduates, I was often amazed at how students approached their increasingly pricey education with a mix of apathy, contempt, and disengagement.  Many failed classes simply because they could not be bothered to show up or complete their work.  The biggest moment of despair came sometime in the second half of the fall semester, when the once bright-eyed, eager freshmen of the start of the year became just as jaded and cynical as the older students.

While the small, independent school where I teach now is very different from those state institutions, I've found that teaching high school students has given me great insight into the frustrations I once had with undergraduates.  I have learned that on the one hand, universities are expecting too much of many of their students (though not in the classroom, necessarily.)  I have learned that the attitudes that many students have towards college have been fostered well before they showed up.  I have also learned that universities foster an environment that squelches the remaining love of learning that many students have left.

As far as the first point goes, high school students receive a great deal of care.  When they start doing poorly in their classes, their teacher might take them aside, their parents might come in or at least put pressure on their children.  High school students get a lot of attention, and the educational methods used to teach high school students are getting increasingly rigid and structured with the advent of greater standardized testing.  (Gladly this is not an issue at my school.)  These 18 year olds get to college, and they do not know how to function without said structure.  No one is making sure they go to class, and they are free to get blitzed on a Thursday night and blow off their Friday classes and studying.  For students raised with helicopter parents (which is increasingly the case), they have been given unprecedented freedom without any of the tools necessary to use it responsibly.  No wonder failure rates, especially for first year students, are so high.  If colleges want to increase graduation rates, and the quality of education more generally, they are going to have to take a hands on approach with their students.  They show up to school effectively still teenagers, and with current parenting and educational trends, it is ridiculous to expect them to act like responsible adults who can manage on their own.

On the second point, students come into college with a certain understanding of what college is supposed to be for.  From the most elite schools on down, the majority of students view their college education as completely instrumental.  Among the undergraduates I once taught, many didn't even seem to know why they were even there, other than some vague sense that going to college was just what one did after high school.  They and others more highly placed see their schooling simply as a stepping stone to employment.  The college application process, which has become even more arduous and ridiculous in affluent sections of society, reinforces the instrumentality of college education.  In this world the selectivity of a school is an indicator of one's merit and ability.  The point is not to learn something at an elite college, but merely to get accepted.  Everything that comes after showing up on campus is merely icing on the cake.  The idea that a college education exists to make one a better, more rounded person is taken to heart by a minority of incoming students.

Lastly, colleges and universities themselves are to blame for the cynical student attitudes that treat each class as a useless chore/obstacle to be completed with as little work as possible.  Students are often presented with a dizzying array of required courses, courses that students have little interest in, and which they often take in their first year.  The main goal seems less learning than making it through an obstacle course.  Many universities show so little interest in undergraduate education -especially in introductory courses- that the students can obviously see it, and respond accordingly.  Being jammed with 600 people in a giant auditorium while a professor gives an incoherent lecture taking the most obscure angle on a particular course is as sure a sign of the university's contempt for the students as anything else.  I've taught high school students at both public and private schools, and their enthusiasm for learning never fails to hearten me.  Yes, many students approach college in a mercenary way, but most universities do little to suggest an alternate viewpoint.  Those students who see their education as the tool to get a future job often do have a reservoir of interest in learning that gets tapped more often in more personal high schools than in impersonal colleges.  Universities need to focus more intently on their undergraduate population, and to understand that the 18 year olds coming to campus need more guidance and attention, and that if they are treated like cogs in a machine, that's exactly the expectation they will conform themselves to.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Track of the Week: The Roches "Hammond Song"

Last week I was re-immersing myself in late 70s-early 80s Bowie, and got to wondering about other artists that the great guitarist Robert Fripp had collaborated with.  With the wonderful power of the interwebs at my fingertips, I found out he had produced the Roches first album, and played guitar on "Hammond Song."  I listened to it, and was immediately blown away.  I'd seen that first Roches record in stores a few time, and a vague sense that it was good, but had never listened to it.  I feel embarrassed about it now, since I have been listening to it constantly for a week.

In case you didn't know, the group are three sisters from New Jersey with folk-inflected songs full of beautiful harmonies.  There's something about close harmonies sung by brothers or sisters that really gets to me.  The genetic closeness of the voices allows them to do some spooky things that you just can't get out of other groups.

The song starts with beautiful simplicity, light, atmospheric organ and a sweetly strummed acoustic guitar starts things off, and then the gorgeous harmonies come in.  At various times Fripp brings in his guitar, with his signature "Frippertronic" effects giving it a ghostly presence.  The song glows so much I swear it warms me up like a blanket, and has been a welcome addition to my rotation this winter, when I need all the warmth I can get.