Sunday, June 10, 2012

Wait Til We’re Sixty-(Something)

Who would have thought that in the second decade of the twenty-first century the developed world would be in such dire financial straits.  What happened to the idea that Western liberal democracy and its free-market ideals had triumphed, completing an “ideological evolution,” as Francis Fukuyama famously put it, which would ensure peace and stability?  Reading the papers, you get the impression that things are rocky, but that we’re not yet on the cusp of socialist or fascist revolutions.  The students protesting in Quebec are “loafing about,” according to one Formula 1 driver.  Occupy movements have been successfully dislodged from our city parks.  Rioting Greeks are, well, you know, Greek.  But old Louis XVI thought grumbling provincials were a passing nuisance.  So did Charles I. 

The mainstream media is getting wise to the anger that many young people feel, and the defensiveness of many in the older generation.  Rob Carrick at The Globe & Mail has been generating a lot of page reads (and discussion) over this inter-generational strife (here, here, and here).  And economist Frances Woolley suggested last week that Canada’s employment insurance is “Canada’s shame” because it is “stealing from the young.”  As the comments section of the G&A suggests, a good number of folks slough this all off as youthful entitlement—the whining of a spoiled class of college grads too used to the good life.

As one of those spoiled kids, I’m trying to understand the moment we’re in.  It’s true that no one is starving in the streets, but revolutions are rarely born of material circumstance.  It’s ideas and debt (that is, the promise of austerity) that cause problems.  As the late Harvard historian Crane Brinton perceptively argued in 1938, it’s “government deficits” and “conspicuous governmental favoring of one set of economic interests over another” which foment revolutions (oh, and lots of under-employed, over-educated people).  Sound familiar?

It certainly didn’t just a generation ago.  I recently rewatched On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Vincente Minelli’s 1970 film version of the musical by Burton Lane (music) and Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics).  I last saw it when I was fourteen.  Like most earnest children newly in the throes of hormones, I somehow had no ability to appreciate it for its sheer camp value—I really thought it was a probing psychological work.  So did Alan Jay Lerner, but years of amphetamine abuse will do that to you.

We should leave aside the silliness of the premise (which involves ESP, hypnosis, reincarnation, and plants which grow really fast when you sing to them).  Oh, and a line-reading so exquisitely ostentatious that it’s a shame more drag queens don’t do it: “My name is Melinda Tentrees”!  There is a remarkable bit of cultural criticism buried in the B-plot in which the neurotic (and psychic) Daisy Gamble interacts awkwardly with her nerdy boyfriend, Warren.  In one musical number, Warren attempts to wow Daisy with the insurance benefits his new job will provide them with.  “Wait Til We’re Sixty-Five” is a jaunty jazz-waltz with a clever hemiola in the middle of the phrase.  That Dave Brubeck-esque rhythmic effect is perfect for Warren, who is educated, modern, industrious, but maybe a little bit odd.  He could be the vaunted archetypal employee of the new information economy (which is just the old industrial economy, but without workers who make anything).  The lyrics have a similarly awkward gait.  They’re supposed to be celebratory, but end up somehow all being about death.

The number was cut from the movie (which Minelli first cut at over three hours!)  This version (in an arrangement by Nelson Riddle) is more late-sixties than the original and features much more of Daisy (they did cast Barbra, after all).  But you still get the picture. (You can buy the original Broadway recording on iTunes.  It’s more fun and features some really splashy horn work in the break.)  I love the two trick rhymes in the last chorus:

Life will be gala / Every mala- / dy all completely paid. / And we've a plot a’ / Terra cotta / In which we'll both be laid.

But the song paints a rosy picture of what we now think of as boomer privilege.  Secure employment, guaranteed pension—even if “the children never mature” (but “the bonds will / so we’re secure”).  What’s remarkable is that this is satire.  Only at sixty-five can Daisy and Warren “come alive.”  Daisy rejects this life of staid middle-class bliss for an uncertain future with her shrink (who’s in love with her eighteenth-century self).  Listening to this piece today is confusing.  It sounds almost like an elegy for a life that is no more; but it’s a pointed critique of that life all the same. 

Or maybe it’s not an elegy for that life.  Maybe it’s an elegy for choice—for a time when you could choose between Warren and Dr. Bruckner, between bourgeois propriety and intellectual bohemian chic.  Or maybe it’s an elegy for certainty.  Bond yields aren’t what they used to be.  It’s unlikely that Warren and Daisy could live in Florida with their “boomerang” layabout children.  They’d just retire to “Tampla, Fla,” after taking out a second adjustable-rate mortgage to shore up their depleted 401K, only to be foreclosed on after a housing market collapse.  And they wouldn’t be doing it at 65.  At least not in Canada (but maybe in France.)  And Dr. Bruckner certainly wouldn’t be tenured at Columbia studying ESP.  Just imagine the Fox News reaction to that indulgence of liberal, lefty, academia.

Perhaps the sad lesson we’re all learning is that age never brings certainty, happiness, or great comfort.  This isn’t true for a couple like Warren and Daisy who only have “six or seven” years to enjoy retirement, or for the students marching in Montreal who may never have a pension to retire on, or for our culture, which ardently needs to believe that it’s evolving into something better than what came before.  Like seventeenth-century England, or eighteenth-century France, or nineteenth-century everywhere (and twentieth-century Russia, China, Iran, and, of late, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, and God-willing, Syria) we’re sensing that things aren’t getting better and we’re angry.  We hope we’ve replaced those former regimes with something better.  I want to believe we have.  And if someone comes up with a humane, democratic, and clever solution to our current problems, I’ll gladly take to the streets as well.

Until then, if you’re retiring—at sixty-seven—perhaps you might like some advice from someone much wiser than myself.  I’ll therefore leave you with this wonderfully witty poem by the late David Wright, “Lines on Retirement, after Reading Lear.”  If you like your life lessons served conversationally in iambic pentameter with a helping of sarcasm, he’s your man.  This poem depresses me, but makes me smile all the same.  So does “Wait Til We’re Sixty-Five.”  Then, I suppose, so should most things.

Avoid storms. And retirement parties.
You can’t trust the sweetnesses your friends will
offer, when they really want your office,
which they’ll redecorate. Beware the still
untested pension plan. Keep your keys. Ask
for more troops than you think you’ll need. Listen
more to fools and less to colleagues. Love your
youngest child the most, regardless. Back to
storms: dress warm, take a friend, don’t eat the grass,
don’t stand near tall trees, and keep the yelling
down—the winds won’t listen, and no one will
see you in the dark. It’s too hard to hear
you over all the thunder. But you’re not
Lear, except that we can’t stop you from what
you’ve planned to do. In the end, no one leaves
the stage in character—we never see
the feather, the mirror held to our lips.
So don’t wait for skies to crack with sun. Feel
the storm’s sweet sting invade you to the skin,
the strange, sore comforts of the wind. Embrace
your children’s ragged praise and that of friends.
Go ahead, take it off, take it all off.
Run naked into tempests. Weave flowers
into your hair. Bellow at cataracts.
If you dare, scream at the gods. Babble as
if you thought words could save. Drink rain like cold
beer. So much better than making theories.
We’d all come with you, laughing, if we could.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Agony and Ecstasy

Santa and Mrs. Claus have excellent if slightly morbid taste.  Or maybe they just know me really well.  This past Christmas they gifted me with a collection of poetry edited by Harvard psychiatrist Mark S. Bauer entitled A Mind Apart: Poems of Melancholy, Madness, and Addiction.  I’m not really one to keep my bedside reading light—that last quiet hour of the day is really the best time to look the hard stuff in the eye. 

The collection would of course be incomplete without John Keats’ Ode on Melancholy.  The rest of the collection samples poems from minstrels of melancholy both obvious (like Plath) and overlooked (like Ivor Gurney).  None of the poems are translations, meaning that bardic purveyor of misery par excellence, Giacomo Leopardi, is left out.  This weekend I’ve started a new project of working my way through all of Leopardi’s Canti and was particularly struck with one poem which pairs nicely with the Ode of Keats, La quiete dopo la tempesta.  Both offer a look at the relationship between pain and pleasure.  Both are extraordinarily good.

It’s impossible to overstate the sheer pleasure involved in reading Keats.  Even when discussing sadness his language is lavish to the point of decadence.  It just feels good to say it, to have the words roll around in your mouth and then trip off your tongue.  Only in the action of saying the words do the images begin to make sense.

For the sake of time we’ll forgo the first two stanzas, in which Keats begs the reader not to forget melancholy, and stick to the third and final stanza which is really the crux of the thing.  In an unfair turn Keats gives the eponymous melancholy a female pronoun and Joy a masculine one.  But this sexism achieves his desired effect of creating separate, opposed, but complementary physiognomies.

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,

Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips;

The line about “Joy", whose hand…” is perfectly quotable.  I’ve pretentiously quoted it at least a half-dozen times since February.  But the fourth line is the real killer.  Here the sensuousness of the verse ironically cuts against the disturbing image—until Keats brings things back in line at the last.  Read the line aloud and you’ll know what I mean. 

The line opens with a nimble alliteration (“Turning to”) which makes you think the unvoiced bilabial (“p”) in “poison” is really not so bad.  It’s all air and teeth and no throat.  The voiced bilabial (“b”) in “bee-mouth” brings it down into your chest at just the moment you’re presented with the cute image of a fuzzy little bee nourishing himself by lapping up sweet nectar.  By the time you realize that he’s taking his last supper you’re on to the “th-si-ps” creepiness of the end of the line.  Here the ophidian hissing sounds link back perfectly to the “s” in “poison.”  The irony is over.  At last the sound of the thing conveys its meaning.  The nectar cannot be consumed to give life—it bites back like an asp to take it.

The rest of the stanza, in typical Keatsian fashion, tackles a few more metaphors to drive his point home.  At first the imagery is devotional (melancholy has its shrine it the “temple of delight”).  Then it’s gustatory. 

Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue

Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;

His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,

And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

In other words, the moment you finally reach happiness all you can taste is the bitterness of melancholy.  It’s the very juice beneath the taught skin of the grape.  It’s a sobering thought.  But Keats’ language is completely intoxicating.  He really makes you want to work to be depressed.

Leopardi deals with the same topic, but conveys a completely different sentiment with a completely different set of poetic tools.  Keats says that sadness is always quick at the heals of joy.  For Leopardi, happiness comes as a quick reprieve in the wake of sadness.  Keats gets his point across with discombobulatingly seductive language and imagery.  Leopardi gets his across with comparatively clean and simple language and a sustained metaphor.  Keats’ silver tongue gets you to the heart of the matter.  Leopardi’s patrician restraint calms you, lulls you, convinces you, and then drops the hammer.  Keats makes you want to spend a week in a melancholic haze.  Leopardi convinces you that your are now and forever in the very thick of that melancholic haze.

Leopardi grew up in the country and La quiete, like many of his great poems, draws its metaphorical power from the well of the simple country life.  “Passata รจ la tempesta:” he begins, “the storm has passed,” and the birds are once again singing, the sun is once again shining, and the world emerges from its shelters.  “Ogni cor si rallegra,” “Every heart rejoices” and tradesmen go about their business and whistle their happy tune.  Housekeepers un-shutter the houses and folks are back in their carriages, off to their destinations. 

The scene could be something out of Whitman—the world is abuzz with activity and optimism.  Leopardi asks when one is happier then after a storm has made people “Fredde, tacite, smorte”: “cold, mute, pale.”  That use of what’s called asyndeton (a list without “and”) is typically Leopardian.  It interrupts a longer lyrical thought with a shot of sobriety.  He often contrasts a kind of classical rhetoric with some astringent modernism.  This poem is from 1829, but it reads like something from a century later.

His pessimism his strikingly modern as well.  Unlike his fellow Romantics in England, Leopardi saw no salve for the wounded post-Enlightenment psyche.  No walk in the woods could refresh the soul or calm the nerves.  When, in the last stanza, he incants “O natura cortese” (“Oh kind nature”) you know he’s being supremely ironic.  For Leopardi, the brief reprieve after the storm is a kind of “miracolo talvolta / Nasce d’affanno,” a “miracle sometimes / born of worry.”  He only allows that “sometimes” one can be happy, and even then it’s a kind of super-human event inspired by the realization that a terrifying storm has not robbed one of their life.

By now in the poem it’s clear that Leopardi’s opening gambit is both more and less than what it first seemed.  The “tempesta” is not just an inconvenience for the simple bumpkins of his idyllic town, but a potent metaphor for the random, uncontrollable, and fearsome events that life throws at us.  The happiness that followed is not a renewal—as one might traditionally understand the metaphor—but at best a sense of relief and at worst a blithe ignorance about what has and will again happen.

I’m not sure that Keats ever knew how to end a poem.  His last lines always linger in the ether—I suppose that’s the point.  Leopardi usually gets a bit more didactic.  La quiete is certainly no exception.  Having taken us from bucolic bliss to existential angst he finishes us off with one last sage bit of wisdom, which reads like the epitaph of a cynical Roman senator by way of a particularly heretical reading of the sermon on the mount.  “assai felice / Se respirar ti lice,” he intones, “D’alcun dolor: beata / Se te d’ogni dolor morte risana.”

“Happy enough / if you’re permitted rest / from any pain: blessed if all your pain is cured by death.”    

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Going Solo

Five years ago I read Chris Willman’s book about the political affiliation of country music artists and how this affected their songwriting and careers.  Willman was inspired to write the book after profiling The Dixie Chicks during the political brouhaha over Natalie Maines badmouthing of George W. Bush.  Country music at the time became an interesting battleground for the political soul of the nation.

It’s funny how things have changed.  In the book Gretchen Wilson suggested that it wasn’t really proper to discuss politics with folks (see subsequently campaigned with Sarah Palin), Chely Wright was the poster girl for red-state military pride (she’s since come out as a lesbian), and Toby Keith was actually a presence on country radio (what happened to his career?).

I also distinctly remember an anecdote about a drunken Ronnie Dunn railing about the left and generally being an obnoxious idiot.  The book did not paint a flattering portrait and so I got it in my head that he was probably just a jerk.  So when he announced he was going solo and releasing an album without his former duo partner I thought for sure he would simply become part of the necrotic intellectual ulcer of the country scene left festering by Mr. Keith.

But to my surprise his latest album, Bleed Red, is actually fucking great.  Dunn has interestingly chosen two slow numbers as the first singles.  The eponymous lead single was a heartfelt apology song.  And the new single, “Cost of Living,” is simply spectacular.  It’s on repeat on my iPod regularly.  It’s a first-person number about a guy in a job interview who’s just trying to make ends meet.  It’s quiet, touching, and—surprise—not at all cloying.  It’s definitely some grade-A material and Mr. Dunn sings it beautifully.

Anyways, this is much to say that this album has been a surprise.  Five years ago I was ready to write him off as an industry dirtbag.  Turns out all these years it was Kix Brooks that was holding him back.  Who knew?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

An Inspiring Op-ed

A truly inspiring op-ed in the Times today about committing to love.  Jonathan Franzen manages to combine cultural criticism, thoughtful pop psychology and a sentimental anecdote into a brilliant piece free of crankery.

“Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts.”

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Real Deal

Ask any pop music aficionado about their preferences and they’ll likely justify many of their choices based on the notion of authenticity.  That word—“authenticity”—is an especially loaded one in cultural studies.  Those in the popular press bandy it about as a badge of honour; academics will often poo-poo it as a chimera, a fantasy of rock snobs.  There are many academic justifications as to why “authenticity” doesn’t exist, but underlying these is a primarily philosophical argument.

In the seventeenth century Descartes famously pronounced that “cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am).  In three words he encapsulated a fundamental notion of human character: we are extensions of our thoughts.  Everything we do, therefore—our actions, choices, music preferences—are results of our essence.  Being “authentic” means being true to who we are.  In some ways, the Cartesian concept of consciousness is strangely “new age,” avant la lettre

The history of the “self” over the past 350 years is a slow shift from Cartesian essence to fraudulent pastiche.  First French and then American philosophers and aestheticians of the past forty years have finally called out humanity for its duplicity.  Our actions, choices, and, yes, music preferences, they argue, are not reflections of our inner minds, but rather conscious choices meant to reflect the kind of people we would like to be.  They usually refer to this as “decentered selfhood.”  We have no essence or “authentic” self, only a vague collection of aesthetic choices meant to reflect some imagined version of ourselves.

Enter country music.  Populist journalists of course venerate the genre as the expression of an “authentic” American spirit.  Cynics and academics, of course. deride it as a commercial construct meant to reflect a fantasy of rural life—a fantasy ever less tenable as we become more urban, sophisticated and middle class.

But as I’ve argued in this blog many times, country music at its best speaks to the way we actually live our lives.  The “Jesus and my truck” variety, as I call it, of course has no relevance to me or, if I may say, the vast majority of country music listeners.  That kind of country is indeed a fantasy of fidelity, piety and patriotism that does not nor has ever existed.  But songs about love found, love lost, household chores, drinking too much and being jealous are not imagined realities—these are experiences far more human than even most hip-hop and r&b can speak to (and I’m not knocking either of those genres).

This is all much to say that I still believe in some notion of “authenticity.”  I don’t mean to apply it in some patronizing way (as it so often is).  “Authenticity” usually only works as a label when you apply it to something both simple and exotic: Chinese pottery, Aboriginal handicrafts, the Hon. Jack Layton.  But something can indeed be authentic (no scare quotes) when it speaks to something common, shared, everyday—something real.

This week I’ve been listening to Lori McKenna’s new album.  Six summers ago I was utterly obsessed with Faith Hill’s album Fireflies—a stellar country album made all the better by two songs written by Lori McKenna.  An appearance on Oprah and a attempt at mainstream country success later, Lori McKenna is back with an indie album with more songs about being a mom (she has five children), a wife (she married young, but is now 41) and living in a working class Massachusetts town (Stoughton, a half hour’s drive south of Boston).

McKenna’s songwriting range, like her vocal range, is limited.  Almost all over her songs are about the three defining characteristics I’ve listed above.  They’re intensely personal—you almost feel a bit bad listening in.  But the specificity she brings to her songwriting is what makes her so stellar.  You might think that songs that mention Fisher Price are beyond the artistic pale, but I swear to you that nothing is more moving than her lyrical turns of phrase.  Her melodies are little more than short exclamations—sometimes pleading, sometimes exalted—but always direct.  But nothing feels more real than this.  It’s funny how songs which are so specific to one woman’s life can touch someone else so deeply.

I think that’s because she scratches below the “Jesus and my truck” version of working- and lower-middle class life.  McKenna’s not trying to convince herself to be happy with the things she has.  She’s trying to tell us about the joys and sorrows that make up her days.  And so when she sings about the television flickering in the hallway, going to her kids baseball games and hugging her husband after work, it doesn’t feel like she’s preaching about the virtues of this life.  She’s just telling you how it is.

Listening to this album makes me want to cry.  I’m not a Massachusetts housewife, but I’ve stood in the hallway after a long day, in the glow of the television, and tried to make sense of what my life is, what it’s been and where it’s going.  This music feels authentic to me.  Call me an old fashioned Cartesian.  But we are what we think.  And I think Lori McKenna is the real deal.  Check out her new album, Lorraine.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dissertation Wordle

My dissertation (now completed) distilled into a small visual diagram. I think it looks like a potato.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On the Truly Excellent Miranda Lambert

This past Sunday Miranda Lambert was robbed.  She did take home a Grammy Award for “Best Female Country Vocal Performance” for “The House that Built Me”—an award she surely deserved.  But the award for country album of the year went to multiple-winners Lady Antebellum for Need You Now.  I like that album and its eponymous single a good deal.  But I don’t love it.  I understood why when I read Jody Rosen’s recent take on Lady A in Slate.  The subheadline of the article christened them “the dullest band on earth” and Rosen suggested that “the group's defining quality is a kind of nebulous in-betweeness.”  This kind of banality was the perfect tonic, says Rosen, for the very immoderate age in which we live.

I certainly don’t begrudge Lady A their success.  They are certainly capable songwriters (if a bit unoriginal).  They even co-wrote a very sweet song with Lambert on her album (“Love Song”).  But Rosen is right: this is a band that you lavish with only a moderate amount of affection.  I do not feel the same way about Miranda Lambert’s Revolution.

Released on September 29, 2009, this is an album that rewards you with repeated listenings.  Its not that its a staggering work of genius—or even that every song is of unimpeachable craftsmanship.  But on the whole, this album is one of the most touching and quietly profound country albums I’ve listened to.

First, we have to discount a couple of songs which are fun diversions but not integral to the main action of this album.  “White Liar” is a too-brassy specimen of Lambert’s revenge fantasy oeuvre; “That’s the Way that the World Goes Round” is her obligatory novelty song cover (though, like Gillian Welch’s “Dry Town” from her previous album, Lambert choose a grade-A songwriter to cover in John Prine).

The rest of the album is absolutely enthralling.  I’ve discussed “Makin’ Plans” and “The House that Built Me” on this blog before.  Both deal with the dangers of straying too far from home.  “Makin’ Plans” is about being content with what’s familiar and “House” is an attempt to recapture some sense of place.  Another song on the album takes the complete opposite approach.  “Airstream Song” is about always being on the move.

Sometimes I wish I lived in an Airstream
Homemade curtains, lived just like a gypsy
Break a heart, roll out of town
‘Cause gypsies never get tied down

The music for it is also quite spectacular.  It features a slightly odd amorphous introduction that sounds like the instruments are just tuning up before launching into a loose-limbed take on alt-country Americana.  That a VERY commercial country artist makes room on an album for these kind of Brooklyn-based hipster-chic musical textures is fascinating.  What’s more, however, is that Lambert doesn’t at all adapt any kind of ironic pose.  She’s quite serious, and not in a falsely pious country way.  She’s managed to find a middle way between sentimental commercial country schlock and the kind of fake-folksy shenanigans of urban redneck poseurs.

Even songs which could take the album into truly awful Red-state jingoism, like “Time to Get a Gun,” have such a winking kindness that you just smile even if you disagree with her politics (she grew up the daughter of private eyes, so she’s earnestly an NRA supporter).  What helps is Lambert’s acknowledgement of her politics in relation to the liberal Northeast.  But rather than adopting Country’s usual befuddlement at city-folk ways, Lambert suggests a rapprochement.

So let’s shake hands and reach across those party lines
You’ve got your friends just like I’ve got mine
We might think a little differently
But we got a lot in common you will see
We’re just like you
Only prettier

Her last chorus states that “I’ll keep drinkin’
And you’ll keep gettin’ skinnier.”  How can you not love this?  Clever, fun, culturally aware—appropriating American musical idioms and subverting them with contemporary cultural messages—graduate students will be lining up to document this.

Typically, however, they’ll likely focus on how she embodies some kind of post-feminist ideology and not discuss what I think is her true aim: to capture the sense of living in a post-place world.  A sense of dislocation is present in each song—dislocation from the ideal relationship, from one’s home, from one’s culture.  She confronts a burning question: unbound from any strictures and with limitless choice what makes you happy?  Revolution touches on how this impacts every aspect of our lives.  How we relate to the land, how we look after our neighbours, how we find love, how we find peace with ourselves.  No album in my recent memory more deeply touches the cultural moment in which we live. 

County is often blamed for being culturally regressive.  I’ve rather loved its ability to bring some poetic dignity to our everyday struggles, but I’ll concede that sometimes artists can affect a nostalgia that I don’t share.  But here Lambert has harnessed the most beautiful aspects of the country idiom to our cultural moment.  Listen to this album and it will cut you to the quick. 

But best of all, Lambert brings you great solace as well.  “Heart Like Mine” is about a Christian girl who doesn’t quite live up to certain strict interpretations of good Christian living.  She’s in a place like a lot of us: struggling to square what we are with we and others would like us to be.  But this girl has hit on quite a good idea regarding her slightly immoderate alcohol consumption.

Cause I heard Jesus, He drank wine
And I bet we’d get along just fine
He could calm a storm and heal the blind
And I bet He’d understand a heart like mine

No more Christ-like words have ever been set to music in country.  I love this woman.