Confessions of a Middle School Neo-Con: Album Reflection

This is a series where I reflect on albums that either number among my favorites, or have otherwise impacted me. Posts may or may not include a review, recommendations, or recipe.

It’s November 8th, 2012 and I am listening to NPR. Michel Martin is interviewing three members of a band who have just released a new album inspired by recent events. Stylistically, it’s something I wouldn’t otherwise discover on my own, but the stories behind the work compel me to seek out and experience it. The final lyric of the album is the phrase, “You’re a witness,” so before a full analysis, let’s witness this work from the context in which it was created. We’re taking a quick field trip to the Wikipedia page for the year 2010.

~~~

January 1st, two-thousand ten, same-sex marriage becomes legal in the state of New Hampshire. On February 1st, Toyota announces they have solved the “Sticking Accelerator Pedal” issue, a massive recall that left many drivers in fear of unexpected, uncontrolled acceleration while driving. On March 23rd, President Barack Obama signs the Affordable Care Act into law, and subsequently fourteen states announce plans to sue the federal government over the law. 

4/20/2010, an explosion occurs on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig, killing 11 workers, and causing the rig to sink two days later – leading to a massive offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest environmental disaster in U.S. History. On Saturday, May 1st, around 6:30pm, two street vendors in Times Square notice smoke coming out of a Nissan Pathfinder and notify the NYPD. Fortunately, due to a combination of malfunctioning and flawed design, this would-be improvised explosive device fails to detonate. 30-year-old Faisal Shahzad is arrested and eventually charged and convicted on terrorism charges for the attempted car-bombing. 

July 21st, President Obama signs the Dodd-Frank bill into law, a suite of reform legislation written in response to the 2008 financial crisis, including the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. On August 19th, the last U.S. combat troops leave Iraq, and on the 31st, President Obama declares an end to combat operations in the country. About 50,000 troops remain in an advisory capacity.

September 19th, after 86 days and over 200 million gallons of crude oil released into the ocean, the well at the site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster is declared sealed. Future observations will report further apparent seepage from the site. 

On October 13th, a federal judge declares “don’t ask, don’t tell” unconstitutional, and temporarily ends the policy. The Department of Justice immediately appeals the decision. The appeal is struck down a few days later on the 19th, and the military begins accepting applications for gay service members. The legal battle continues however, and the military pressures congress to take action and keep the issue out of the courts. Legislation including a repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” passes a vote in the Senate and is signed into law later the same year. 

November 18th, General Motors returns to trading on the New York Stock Exchange, sixteen months after it declared bankruptcy in July 2009. November 28th, WikiLeaks releases the first of thousands of confidential documents sent by U.S. Diplomats. 

On December 17th, 2010, Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor in the city of Sidi Bouzid, stands in traffic in front of the governor’s office, douses himself in gasoline, and sets himself on fire.

~~~

For a long time, MC Jonny 5 and MC Brer Rabbit, two members of rap/rock band Flobots had wanted to visit the Middle East, and in early 2011, they did. On January 25th, 2011 protests calling for the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak began in Tahrir Square in Cairo. The protests would spread across Egypt, lasting two weeks and three days, culminating in the resignation of Mubarak. This moment, in addition to Bouazizi’s self-immolation catalyzed a series of anti-government and often pro-democracy demonstrations across the Arab world, a period generally known as the Arab Spring. In addition to revolution, these events sparked a new creative output for Flobots. Jonny 5 began working through new lyrics as early as the plane ride back to the States.

That fall, in their home base of Denver, Flobots headed into the studio to record an album inspired by individuals rising up against oppressive regimes in traditional societies. On September 17th, 2011 demonstrators gathered in Zucotti Park to protest economic inequality. They called their movement Occupy Wall Street and introduced America to the language of the 99% and the 1%, and other occupy movements sprung up in cities across the nation, including Denver. An album birthed in response to protests abroad was now being shaped in the studio in response to protests at home. Direct references to language and themes of these uprisings are present “The Circle In The Square,” an album by Flobots, released on August 28th, 2012.

~~~

The history of art is human connection. An audience is communal with the artist and with each other, and artists throughout the ages connect with each other through reinterpretation and reaction in their creation. Flobots use this album to connect these two protests movements, both rooted in rebellion against the existing power structures, and calling for a society that more practically reflected democratic values. From the middle east to the east coast and beyond, people were mad as hell, and they weren’t going to take it anymore. 

At the time I found the album sonically and lyrically interesting, and felt it captured the mood of frustration and a struggle, but it didn’t necessarily connect me to the movement. And I didn’t really have any personal experience that should connect me to the passions of groups shouting in the streets. I have been fortunate. I didn’t have to pay for my first car, so I always had reliable transportation to a job. I never took out student loans, so I don’t have looming, unending student debt. I have remained healthy, so I am not crippled with medical debt. I have always been able to find safe, affordable living situations, and I have never been harassed by authorities in my place of business, consistently demanded bribes of, and been left powerless to petition my government for redress of grievances. I have been fortunate. And all these protests were happening so far away.

~~~

It is November 2nd, 2004, and I have just cast my ballot for the re-election of President George W. Bush in the mock election at my middle school. The week prior I was one of two eighth graders selected to portray the President in a mock republican convention. I even wrote my own nomination acceptance speech outlining the planks of the party platform, which in addition to researching for accuracy, I also happened to agree with personally. 

I listened to a lot of conservative talk radio in middle school. Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck, and Michael Savage were all regulars on my dial. I liked Rush Limbaugh, too, but he was on the air in the middle of the day, so I didn’t catch his show often. These pundits were smart, clever, and logical – all values I saw in myself and strived to deepen. On top of that we were nominally republicans at home, not that politics was a big deal, but voting is a civic duty, so you pick a team that shares your values. Freedom. Liberty. Hard work. 

At thirteen years old I had no real reason to believe in small government, other than the fact that that’s what the founders wanted, and that’s the way to be most free, and that’s the way to stimulate the economy, and that’s the opposite of big government, and you know who has big governments? Socialists, and socialism is bad, because communists are socialists, and communism is bad. Conservative politics is the most reasonable choice, and the only way to keep society from collapse. Liberals are the opposite of conservatives, so I guess they want to destroy America, or at least those who don’t actively want to cause the downfall of the world as we know it, have good intentions, but their positions are based in feelings, not fact, and you know what they say, if you’re too open minded, your brain might fall out.

~~~

Over time, I would become distanced from conservative political talking points, and not because I was seduced by the dark side. It was mostly because I started spending my time doing something other than listening to talk radio. High school arrived and I had marching band practice, and debate tournaments, and theatre. And I played in the youth praise band at church, and started a band with friends, and rode my bike a lot, and played computer games. And I got a job, and enrolled in college, and played disc golf, and wrote songs. I found myself listening to talk radio less and less, and in turn, I repeated what I heard from it less and less.

So what happened to the kid who duct-taped a county-by-county red and blue election map on his locker with the caption, “Still think the election was close?” in an effort to propagandize his classmates? Did he walk away from his convictions? Were his deeply held beliefs challenged and changed? I don’t think I truly believed in conservative politics, but rather identified with them. Entertaining, charismatic, white people with easy-to-listen-to voices found their way onto my radio, and I thought I had found my tribe.

There was a time I wanted to be a talk-radio host when I grew up, and that desire was not driven by a need to entrench myself in a certain political ideology, but by a need to perform. Whether in conversation, or on a stage, or in an essay, I want my audience to feel they’ve gotten something of value out of the experience. Sure, I like the attention, but I don’t want someone to say, “you were great up there,” I want them to say, “I never thought about it that way.” I want to be a catalyst for your life being better because you encountered my art. That’s how I want to be seen, that’s how I want to be heard, that’s how I want to be known. The history of art is human connection.

By 2012, I had largely let go of any strong political leanings. I was still influenced by my latent conservative thought, but policy conversations didn’t interest me much, or at least were not a pillar of my identity. I still voted, too. I’m not entirely sure who I cast my ballot for that year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was for Romney. Although I didn’t really have a problem with Obamacare. I liked the fact that it meant I could remain on my parents’ health insurance until age 26.

~~~

Best Way To Listen To The Whole Album: Looking for bumper music to include in the documentary podcast you are producing about the Arab Spring.

If You’re Only Going To Listen To One Track: Run (Run, Run, Run)

My Favorite Lyric: “Put the book away, we fight today. And the fires burn with brighter flames. There’s a balm in Gilead.”

Best Bop On The Album: The Rose and the Thistle

Yes, Flobots Are: the guys who sing the “I can ride my bike with no handlebars song” but while many people experienced that song as a novelty, the song as a whole is an indictment of wielding great power without responsibility, particularly the negative effects that a nation’s indiscriminate use of military force has on individuals, and with its release in 2005 it certainly falls into the same milieu of Bush-era protest rock along with Green Day’s American Idiot, and all this shouldn’t be surprising because Flobots has always been political.

~~~

In 2012 I was surprised by this fully conceptualized album coming from Flobots. At that point I only knew them as the guys who sing the “I can ride my bike with no handlebars song,” and thought it was kind of a novelty hit. I like surprises in my art. I like concept albums. I like it when it feels like someone has put in a lot of work to make it into a whole thing. “The Circle In The Square” felt like a window into another world, it wasn’t just a collection of songs, it was a story. But while I connected on an aesthetic level, it didn’t lead me to care too much about the complexities and impacts of the Arab Spring, and it didn’t make me care about some hippies in a park trying to talk about income inequality. My latent conservatism still had my thought patterns locked into a worldview based solely in my own experience, unable to empathize with any perspective that differed from mine. In the years to follow, my relationship to this album, and my perspective on protests, would shift.

On July 13th, 2013, a Florida jury finds George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. In the wake of this verdict, protests erupt and the Black Lives Matter movement is born. Month after month, year after year, we see the unnecessary death of a Black person, often at the hands of law enforcement, met with no or unsatisfactory action by the criminal justice system. And we see protests.

On September 15th, 2017, former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley is found not guilty of first-degree murder in the 2011 death of Anthony Lamar Smith. The first of a series of protests takes place downtown near the courthouse. Protest events continue to be organized in St. Louis city and county for the next two months.

At some point along the way, I began developing an ability to see and hear and listen to the experiences of others. And over time, the distorted guitar and thunderous drums and screaming violins of “The Circle In The Square” morphed from a story about characters elsewhere, to the voices of real people, my neighbors, whose lives and experiences matter, but are negatively affected by the systems they live under. 

It’s 2020, and I have seen stories of injustice and two Americas play out over and over again. I have witnessed a system that talks the talk of equality but does not walk it. I have seen protests close to home. I have been friends with protesters, and I have listened to their stories. I have heard the grievances of my neighbors that go unheard by the power structures above them. And these experiences are not mine, but my good fortune does not negate their reality. 

And the history of art is human connection. 

The album opens with the lyric, “When he came to the place where his enemy lay, he looked down at the body and said, ‘That could be me.’” I would much prefer a world where I don’t have an enemy, a world where there aren’t ‘other’ people, just people. That may sound naively optimistic, but cynicism doesn’t get anything accomplished.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

You can still donate money to organizations working to advance racially equitable systems and policies, like Forward Through Ferguson.

You can also support individuals directly by donating to any number of local and national bail funds.

The History of Dance pts 1 & 2: Album Reflection

This is a series where I reflect on albums that either number among my favorites, or have otherwise impacted me. Posts may or may not include a review, recommendations, or recipe.

THE STORY: I was introduced to Relient K by friends who were cooler than me. I say friends, plural, because my relationship to the group has been intermittent, and I have had multiple rounds of reintroductions. If you don’t know, Relient K is a Christian Pop-Punk band from the early 2000s named for (but spelled differently from for legal reasons) the vehicle Lee Iaccoca used to drive Chrysler away from the brink of financial collapse.

The first introduction by someone cooler than me was my piano teacher’s oldest son, Jesse. My older brother and I would have our lessons back to back, so one would hang out with her kids while the other had their lesson, then mom would say, “okay let’s get ready to leave” which means she would stand and chat with Miss Terri for another twenty minutes to a half hour, so all three of us could go play lightsabers with wiffle bats in the backyard for a while. 

And Jesse was so cool. He had a lofted bed and Magic The Gathering cards. So unlike Tubthumping, I do rememeber the where I was the first time I heard Relient K – sitting on the floor of Jesse’s room, taking turns listening through the headphones plugged in to his walkman. My eyes (or ears) were opened to a new brand of silly songs, not sung by an anthropomorphic cucumber, but by real-life bleeding soft-punks shouting lyrics about how all they could hear was “ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk” as the doctor drove medical staples into their friend who just ate it pretty hard while skating. 

This was clearly music loved by, and written and performed by, people who were now, and always would be far cooler than I was. And on top of it all, they were Christians, so it didn’t matter how weird or borderline their content was, it was officially acceptable. While this experience was a revelation, I never owned that album or otherwise found it in heavy rotation, so I would move on with my life, merely aware of Relient K.

~~~

The next person cooler than me was my older brother. I hadn’t forgotten about the band, but like all things shared in youth by siblings, some things belonged more to one than the other. Audio Adrenaline was mine, Relient K was his. 

So it’s 2003, and while their eponymous debut featured songs like “Staples,” and “Marilyn Manson Ate My Girlfriend,” they had since graduated from recklessly silly into their role as purveyors of the nouveaux Jesus Culture, fit to be played as pre-show service music at cooler youth groups. The most enduring track from their 2001 sophomore release “The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek” – and the most predictive of the direction they would be headed – was “Sadie Hawkins Dance.”

A Sadie Hawkins dance is apparently a real thing from a bygone era where, instead of the traditional arrangement of boys asking girls to be their date to the school-sanctioned social, this time the girls would ask boys to accompany them.

Where I grew up there were only two dances: homecoming and prom. And even these are generously categorized as dances. For both events the the DJ would just play the top R&B and Hip Hop hits plus whatever Katy Perry was charting with that week. And against that soundtrack there was only two types of dancing: jumping around for the prudes, and grinding for the sluts. My generation wouldn’t learn to dance* until we started attending our friends’ wedding receptions. And we have not so much learned to dance as learned to drop our inhibitions and have a good time, since what other people think of us is no longer a matter of life and death.

So Relient K unexpectedly introduced a whole generation to an archaic pop culture concept with no real relevance. Sure, we were aware of the boys-asking-girls-to-a-dance trope and expectation, but it didn’t carry the same weight as it might have in an episode of Leave it to Beaver. The atmosphere was less “will you be my date to the dance?” and more of a “will you take pictures before and arrive with me to the event?” And nowhere in my real life experience can I remember a guy asking a girl to a dance where there was any uncertainty in the response. Even if you had a date, these dances were typically attended with a group of friends, and there was no existing tradition of partner dancing.

~~~

But like I said, it’s 2003, and Relient K is about to double down on their identity of “we’re making nostalgic pop-culture references that are about six-to-ten years too old for our core audience to actually relate to.” Now, I could make a joke about how music used to come on these things called CDs, but even for the people who have never seen one, I’m sure they’re generally aware of the migration of physical media to digital media, so it’s not worth going into – but the timing is relevant.

Being a somewhat gimmicky band, my older brother, once again, cooler than me (at the time) was so excited to share with me the gimmick Relient K had come up with for their third album. “Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right, but Three Do” was to be released with four different versions of the cover art. This was super cool and inventive and probably the result of someone at Gotee records being pretty savvy to recognize that with the release of the iPod two years prior we were about to see the peak and decline of physical music sales in the U.S. But not yet being a history major examining the social, political, and economic factors that led to this moment, I was merely living it. And while we did not have the cash money to buy the records in all their iterations, there was still an excitement around, “which one would we get?” and “this band is so cool that they’re doing this cool thing, wow.”

Maybe there was a time in the early aughts when it was cool to geek out over the John Hughes contributions to the Brat Pack canon, or maybe my cooler older brother just happened to be friends with girls who really liked Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Pretty in Pink, so he learned to appreciate them as well. Whatever the case, this album would see Relient K ride this resurgence of 80s culture with songs about mood rings, and chapped lips, chapstick, and things like chemistry, and wearing a pink tux to the prom.

Just as Napoleon Dynamite would lead to a rash of side-ponies, shaved heads, and tot-stuffed pockets, Relient K surely shored up the mood ring market, and gave one too many teen boys permission to strongly consider renting a loudly hued ensemble to wear to their school dance.

~~~

Relient K took a cotton-candy, suburban fairground, unattended minor aesthetic and safely packaged it as mainstream Christian wildness with a broad crossover appeal. Their trailblazing existence would make bands like Family Force Five possible. And while Family Force Five would go on to take zany to the next level, Relient K would not.

The turn of the century was a closing door on the opportunity to garner widespread appeal from an organic product. The boy band era did not destroy the independent artist, but it proved that lab-tested homogenous tunes were a viable business model. Now that the largest distribution houses had no more need for garage-grown rock and roll in order to profit, a band who wanted to “make it” needed to start listening to focus groups. There’s probably multiple academic papers out there that can prove or disprove my wild and unfounded claims, but the upheaval of the record industry at this time no doubt played into the production of their next release: “Mmhmm.” At that’s kid of how I feel about that album.

No one cooler than me introduced me to “Mmhmm.” No one introduced me to “Mmhmm.” And maybe that’s why I don’t think it’s that cool of an album. And maybe I already had the makings of the proto-hipster in my personality, because “Mmhmm” was Relient K’s first “popular” release. Meaning that it had wider airplay, and people who didn’t really have opinions about music liked it. The most memorable tracks on this album paint a picture of a solid, pleasing effort in the pop-punk milleu: “It’s sunny with a high of seventy-five,” and “I’m begging you to be my escape.” We have reached peak homogeneity.

Now. This essay is not about any of this. So let’s go ahead and call that bit, Part 1: Background. 

PART 2: THE ALBUM: I remember the first time I heard “Forget And Not Slow Down.” Time for another cooler friend. It’s 2009 and Rob was one of the bass players in the youth group praise band. There were many bass players I had played with, all of them cooler than me, one could grow a cooler beard, one could write cooler songs, one could write a cooler blog, but Rob, he was just cooler period. Also, most of the kids playing in the praise band also formed their own original bands. I was in one, and so was Rob, and his band was cooler than ours.

One day, before worship band practice, I was walking into the auditorium and Rob said I had to listen to this new song by Relient K. Okay, sure, I’ll give it a listen. What I heard sounded nothing like the Relient K I thought I knew.

From his phone speakers I hear a plucked cello ostinato, and over that continuo follows a bright acoustic guitar and eventually warm, natural drums, as well as vaguely narrative lyrics giving an impression of a half-remembered dream, and vignettes of a romance that maybe started and ended too quickly, or never happened at all.

While I remember first hearing “Savannah,” the album didn’t go on to put a stamp on the era of its release in my life. I don’t think it immediately became a staple in the CD binder I kept in my car, but I did buy a physical copy of “Forget And Not Slow Down.” And at some point I forgot about it, but just as my relationship with Relient K has gone through seasons of rediscovery, this album would eventually float to the top of a pile of things in a box unpacked months after a move, and back into my consciousness. 

~~~

So how does a band that’s known for silliness and pop-culture references turn out something that feels so organic and mature? Well, the apocryphal story goes something like this: Matt Thiessen (pronunciation still unknown to the world), frontman and primary lyricist for the band, got engaged and was really really happy. But then the engagement was broken off for vague, non-public, and very whisper-whispery reasons. In the fallout, Matt got really sad and really introspective and wrote a bunch of really good songs. Turn that pain into art, baby.

“Forget And Not Slow Down” can easily be classified as a “breakup album” as the songs and overall arc parallel the emotional journey of a romantic relationship ending. Such albums often offer proxy comfort and empathy to fans who are going through or have just gone through a break up – something that can be there for them in a time of need, wallowing in self-pity and loneliness in the wake of a relationship turned sour.

Other classic examples of breakup albums are — actually, I can’t name any off the top of my head. Probably because I don’t have that type of relationship with any album. Not even this one. 

~~~

Best Way To Listen To The Whole Album: Driving through the country just to drive, with only music and the clothes that you woke up in.

If You’re Only Going To Listen To One Track: “Savannah”

My Favorite Lyric: “Loneliness and solitude are two things not to get confused, because I spend my solitude with You.”

Most “Matt Thiessen-y” Turn Of Phrase: “Can’t hold a candle to her, ’cause all the moths get in the way.”

Best Contemporary Christmas Song That’s Actually About Jesus: (It’s not from this album, but absolutely worth noting) “I Celebrate The Day”

~~~

I’ve never had the quintessential breakup experience. I don’t wish for it, nor do I think I’m missing anything essential. But in a mass-media world it’s pretty ubiquitous, so it’s easy to take that lack of experience and count it as a lack, because, well, everyone else has gone through it right? Sure, it’s statistically impossible that I’m alone in this, but the fact that there is a monolithic formula to the way relationships are presented in music, films, and television makes it sometimes feel like I am. 

It’s a classic picture of the question of life imitating art and vice versa: is the image of romance on a screen that way because that is the prevailing experience in the culture, and therefore those who write these stories are drawing on their own experience? Or have creators found a cheat code to human emotion that they know will stir desires in the audience, so they craft character relationships in a way guaranteed to maximize drama and therefore keep the audience locked in so they can sell more candy bars in the gift shop? The world may never know.

The pop-culture narrative of a relationship tends to go like this: Me, me, me, me, me, me, meet cute, we, we, we, we, us, us, forever and til death a-do we part. Or: Me, me, meet cute, we, we, us, us, nevermind I hate you get out of my life forever. Feel free dump the contents of both into deep pan, shake and bake, uncovered in an oven preheated to 350.

This is the problem with sitcom romance. It is not in the interest of drama to show a healthy relationship be built and grow and mature. It’s much cheaper and more effective to fight and break up, then kiss and make up over and over until the series finale. 

No one is taught how to build healthy relationships that grow and mature, so we get to figure it out through trial and error. So how have I avoided the error? Simple: I’ve had no trials (depending on how you count, but it’s anywhere between very few and zero). So if I don’t need a breakup album to get me through the hard times, why have I connected with this one so much? Well, this album is different. 

~~~

In this album, the heartbreak is demonstrated so much more palpably because we’re given glimpses of the beauty of the relationship. One song can serve a tributary to the greatness of our narrator’s ex, even to their veneration, as others question the foundation of the relationship in the first place. This album is a personal research project, it makes few outright claims, rather choosing to float an idea and wrestling with it.

This is not a story of: I thought you were the one for me, but then showed your true colors – you ripped my heart out and crushed it so now forget you and your friends too. And it’s not a three-point-analysis of the deterioration of the relationship either.

The overwhelming tone is not anger and betrayal, or sadness and despair, or even remembering the good times and thanks for the memories. It’s much more nuanced than that, and even one song admits it’s a bit of therapy for the artist. This album is not a response to the breakup, it is the very act of working through the breakup. Confronting and denying emotions, questioning identity – is that who I am, or is that who we were, or they were? Even if that is me, is that who I want to be? Is it my fault? Is it yours? Does that matter?

The unifying, underlying tone throughout the entire album is melancholy. 

I remember the first time I encountered the word melancholy. It was Because of Winn-Dixie, the book. There is a fictional candy in the story called Littmus Lozenges, and they have a secret ingredient: melancholy. Different characters respond to the flavor differently, but the candies still made the inventor very wealthy. Even though it may be bitter, or seem undesirable, there is value in melancholy. Emotions are not inherently good or bad, but they are tools to help us understand our world. Why are they also called feelings? – because they help us interpret what is around us. We feel through touch, we feel through sight and sound, and we feel through sadness, frustration, and joy. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

*I say my generation broadly, but personally there was a group of friends who learned to swing dance in high school, but it wasn’t really germane to this story.

The Songs That Remind Us of the Times We Don’t Remember: Album Reflection

This is a series where I reflect on albums that either number among my favorites, or have otherwise impacted me. Posts may or may not include a review, recommendations, or recipe. This one includes all three.

THE STORY: It’s Saturday morning one summer in the late 90s and I am ten years old. Any other Saturday, 9 AM would not feel so early – it’s easy to be up by then; that’s when the good cartoons start. But it’s not 9 AM, it’s actually about a quarter til 9, and I have to hurry up and put some real clothes on, because Dad is taking my brother and I to get a haircut. 

It’s important we arrive at the haircut place before they open at 9, that way we can wait in the car in the parking lot of the haircut place – until they open at 9. This is a strategy known to no one else in the world, because we are the first ones to enter the haircut place, and the first ones on the list to have our hairs cut. Other strangers arrive precisely at nine, or a couple minutes after. These patrons are rewarded by their tardiness; they get more time to look at Motor Trend Magazine.

One of my mom’s friends doesn’t like the haircut place we go to because The American Top 40 Countdown plays on the radio there. It’s not that she has anything against Casey Kasem, but some of the popular songs of the day promote sexual promiscuity or use bad language and there are children at that haircut place at 9 AM on a Saturday morning. You see, at the time, my mom’s friends’ favorite pop-culture doctor was neither Oz nor Phil, but James Dobson. 

I think we go to Custom Cuts because it’s closest to home. There’s a Great Clips across the street next to Blockbuster, and I don’t know what kind of music they play, but it’s further from home and I heard that one of the haircut ladies there cut a kid’s ear.

~~~

The first time I heard Chumbawamba’s breakout hit single, “Tubthumping,” I was – – honestly, I’m not sure where I was or what I was doing when I first heard it. I don’t remember having first heard it. I must have heard it when it was popular on the radio, and I remember knowing it had a bad word in it, so whenever that was, it was certainly around the time in my life where I was getting haircuts on Saturday mornings. And just like haircut days, there is no specific date on the calendar that tacks this piece of ephemera to the corkboard of my memory. This song, along with older siblings, the neighborhood pool, and Star Wars – has no start date in my consciousness. These things have just always existed.

So if Tubthumping, or the “I get knocked down, but I get up again” song, doesn’t stand out as particularly important in my memory, then why bring it up? Well, because unlike any other one-hit-wonder of that era, I am familiar with the entire album it belongs to. However, I did not own the album back then. I wouldn’t discover the twelve tracks of 1997’s “Tubthumper” until some point over a decade after its release.

And just as I’m not quite sure when I first heard the song, I’m not quite sure when I sought out and started listening to the whole album. I have a copy of it on a burned CD, so I must have purchased it from a digital retailer, and I must have done so before the disc drive on my Macbook decided to quit. Also I last listened to CDs regularly when I was still driving the Odyssey, because when I sold that and bought my Mini Cooper, the speakers were blown. So when I had that car I listened to music through a Bluetooth speaker velcroed to the dash. 

It was certainly post high school, and likely after I turned twenty-one, because I don’t recall being shocked by rediscovering the lyric, “He drinks a whiskey drink, he drinks a vodka drink, he drinks a lager drink, he drinks a cider drink.” Although I do remember in the 90s, the Dobsonites being scandalized by the phrase, “pissing the night away,” and now in retrospect, why was their concern focused on the use of the language, “pissing,” and not on the overconsumption, or even consumption at all of alcohol? 

~~~

THE RECIPE: On a sidenote, as a fan of pop-culture cocktails, I’m proud to say that I have taken the opportunity to sample “The Tubthumper,” which in addition to consuming the four aforementioned beverages in sequence, requires the subsequent singing of the songs that remind you of the good times, as well as the songs that remind you of the better times. Piss the night away as a garnish.

~~~

Under those parameters, I probably discovered this album somewhere around 2012-2013. In fact, after writing most of this, I did some digging and found the audio files on my computer. In the “date modified” column, it displays “Nov 21, 2011 at 12:24 PM.” So yeah, it looks like I downloaded it for lunch on a random Monday. At which point I would have just recently turned twenty-one, and was living in my parents’ house while taking my first of many consecutive “semesters off” from college. In addition, there is a second copy of the almost titular track with a “date modified” column reading “Apr 10, 2011 at 4:17 PM,” a few months earlier during my last semester living in the dorms at MO State. 

All these details have sparked a clearer memory. I now recall, in a grand fit of nostalgia, setting out to create a mix CD of popular songs from my childhood – songs that I never owned but only heard on the radio. In addition to Tubthumping, the playlist included songs like “The Sign” by Ace of Bass, and “Lovefool” by the Cardigans, and “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve, and “The Way” by Fastball. 

Nostalgia is an interesting thing, does it have a start date? Can you pinpoint when you first felt nostalgic for something? Or were you even aware of the concept before you felt its ache? There must be a threshold. It has to be different from mere remembering or desiring. ‘Sure, summer is over and I wish I could go back to Six Flags, but I can go next year’ – that’s not nostalgia. No, the threshold for nostalgia is not a line, but a nebulous period of time, and maybe physical distance as well. You must be separated from a memory in all four dimensions of proximity before nostalgia is possible. 

By that measure, I’d posit that college – or at least the first time living in a different town away from your home, is, for most, the earliest you can truly feel nostalgia. It’s no surprise that a place of discovery would also be a place of rediscovery.

~~~

I’ve got this neat party trick. If you take an obscure or niche corner of pop culture and do about five minutes of research on it, chances are you have about five minutes more knowledge than most people on that subject. And if you’re able to speak with the same fervor about those five minutes of knowledge as anyone else might speak about their favorite athlete or their favorite Harry Potter character, you will appear to have the same commitment to that knowledge that that any normal person has to any other normal piece of trivia. And while any normal person may dedicate hours to the study of baseball statistics or to the discussion of what house they’re likely to be sorted into – you can leverage this party trick in mere minutes to appear, at best interesting, and at likeliest, odd.

So it was either the unquenchable curiosity of a true academic, or a perilous drive to manufacture an air of eccentricity that led me to seek out more information about the band that penned this hit. What started as a- whatever it was, eventually turned into a “where-are-they-now?” Wikipedia dive. And boy was I surprised that the first categorization of Chumbawamba was, comma, a punk rock band. It turns out, Chumbawaba was super political, like on the far anarcho-lefty side of the spectrum, and the sound that made them famous was sort of on a lark. In the mid-90s there was all this techno and house music stuff going on, and illicit abandoned warehouse raves were, well, all the rave. One of the band members really dug the electronic and sampling vibe and said, hey, what if we try our hand at this style for fun? And the answer to that question is the album, “Tubthumper.”

THE REVIEW: The fact that we only remember the one song is not surprising from a pop-single standpoint – it was the only track suitable for serious radio airplay. Only one track on the album clocks in under four minutes long, and that’s not even Tubthumping. The album is structured more like a unified piece than a collection of possible singles. At the top or end of most tracks we find sampled clips of spoken word from British radio and television, interludes that sometimes connect to a core theme, like poverty and civil unrest, and other times serve as a comical non-sequitur. 

The album’s production is clearly of its time, but I still think it’s aged pretty well. I consider it serviceable driving-with-the-windows-down music, because it’s high-energy and dancey, but also weird enough to make people look and think, “Whatever he’s blaring is simultaneously familiar, unknown, catchy, and confusing – he must be a devastatingly interesting person.” The tracks contain a lot of reverse cymbals and other tic-a-tac drum machine sounds that would go on to serve as a foundation for the tonal landscape of every song featured in the arcade hit Dance Dance Revolution. 

~~~

Best Way To Listen To The Whole Album: Driving on a suburban highway in the middle of the afternoon in the middle of summer, windows down, volume up -OR- through over-the-ear headphones in a university library while researching The Troubles.

If You’re Only Going To Listen To One Track: “Amnesia”

My Favorite Track When I Discovered The Album: “The Good Ship Lifestyle”

My Favorite Track Now: Toss up between “Drip, Drip, Drip,” and “The Good Ship Lifestyle.”

My Favorite Lyric: “I only recognize two tunes, Silent Night, and God Save The Queen, and I only know which is which because one of them everybody stands up for.”

~~~

What’s your favorite TV show? What kind of music do you like? We connect with people over shared experiences, and in a world of mass media pop-culture, we don’t have to be there at the same time to share them. Whether it’s a currently or past held fandom, the media we find ourselves attached to gives us a tribal language – I can trust this stranger because they got the reference, because they come from where I come from, even if they don’t. And that is equally efficient and dangerous. Because it’s so easy to fake. Granted, the proposition is pretty low impact: who cares if I know the words to “Be A Man” from Mulan because the Disney Renaissance was a key feature of my development or if it’s because I sought out that exposure later in life? If cultural competency is akin to language, then why distinguish between a native or non-native speaker?

If I really reflect on that 90s playlist: Chumbawamba and The Verve and Ace of Bass have nothing to do with my past beyond being background music. There’s no emotional connection to a sense memory that makes me know my roots on a deeper level. It’s just noise. Noise with a beat and melody and lyrics that I happen to enjoy on an aesthetic and artistic level. But my connection is more anthropological than personal. 

My true coming-of-age mass-media center is closer to “Turn of the Century,” but I romanticized the idea of being a “Child of the Nineties.” I sought out and researched the cultural knowledge to connect me to that identity. Yes, I had an organic awareness, but part of me wanted to solidify my connection to these cultural touchstones. Did I make this playlist in an effort to retcon my cultural background? Does Holden Caulfield think I’m a phony? Do I even like Chumbawamba, or did I contrive an affinity for it because I wanted to be seen as a person of particular and peculiar taste? Or am I, in fact, a person of particular and peculiar taste? And does it matter?

What I do know, is that I cut my own hair now. And that has nothing to do with the fact that Custom Cuts removed the two large mirrors on opposite walls of the waiting area where I would pass the time gazing into infinity. No, Custom Cuts just isn’t close to home anymore. And a few years ago I decided it might be economical and within my skill set to try the clippers in my own bathroom. And it is, so I do.

I enjoy listening to the full Tubthumper album, but it’s not a part of my past. It may have been nostalgia, or even a desire to create a false nostalgia that led me to discover the album. It may have been released during my childhood, but it’s not a part of my childhood. It’s not a part of my teen years, and it’s not a part of my young adulthood. It’s just a protest-inspired, techno-influenced experiment that I happen to like.

Social Distance, Perchance to Dream

In light of COVID-19 related social distancing practices, I woke this morning from a dream about normal social interaction. To be fair, it wasn’t truly plain and simple, there were still some hallmarks of the dream-state, but the settings were mostly normal. And believe me when I say, the following is not externally embellished.

2020-03-26 10.42.55

It started with me swinging by my parents’ house after work, just to visit and chat. Then, I guess some door-to-door sales guy was outside to sell them a GutterGuard. Dad blamed me for this, not in an angry way, but in a, “you have to learn from the consequences of your actions” way. Dad had it in his mind that I had somehow signed up for this consultation, that an appointment was made by me being careless with my email address or phone number online. So I had to go talk to the sales guy.

Since my day job is sales-adjacent, I decided to be polite and let the guy give his whole pitch, even though we had no intention of buying anything from him. Wait – – no, before I went out, Dad, still wanting me to endure the interaction with a salesperson as some sort of penance, also directed me to “at least find out how much it would cost,” as he was aware of the quality reputation of the product in question and thought it may prove a beneficial upgrade to the house.

So I go out on the porch to talk to the guy, and he has somehow set up a whole trade show booth presentation about his products outside the door. To be clear, he didn’t have an actual trade show tent, he just had full displays and samples and stuff hanging from a sort of collapsible frame set up on my parents’ front porch, so not totally magical and absurd, but ever so slightly beyond the limits of reality, or at least what could be realistically expected – there was no, “hi, let me get my stuff out of my car and set up for this meeting,” it was just, he was there, and his stuff was set up. I also had that dream-state awareness, that there was a colleague of his nearby doing the same thing with another potential customer, but like, not at their front door, more like ten feet away in our yard, but it didn’t feel inappropriate, just like, “yes, people are selling things, they are doing their jobs.”

So the guy is addressing me as if I am the homeowner, and I’m not, and I know I’m not, and I’m not doing or saying anything to lead him to believe I am, but I am also, not stating that I’m not, because I’m going to let him make his assumptions and keep that detail in my pocket in case I need to use it as an out later. And he goes through his spiel and asks me questions that I’m supposed to nod and say, “yeah, that sounds right” to, and I do. And he doesn’t bring up price, and in the back of my head, I’m just thinking, I wonder how much this costs. And in my head, I’m also coaching myself that when we do get to the question of price to get a direct answer on all the costs, product, installation, labor, fees, warranty, etc., because I have to have all the details for Dad.

And I’m checking the time, because I want to be respectful and let this guy do his whole bit, because I know it’s his process, but there’s also a vague awareness that there is something to do or somewhere to be later, or maybe I have decided I don’t want to waste any more of my time or his. And I’m not letting him continue because he’s new and needs the practice, I mean he is young, but I don’t think he’s new-new, because he is confident and appears knowledgeable. Maybe he’s new to this product, but he has definitely sold before, like he’s not afraid of whether or not he’s going to make the sale, he’s just doing his pitch like he always does, because sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it works enough that the job is worth it to him.

But eventually it gets to be too much. I’m tired of pretending to listen, and I just want an estimate, because we know it’s a good product, and we know we would benefit from it, but we don’t really need it, so we just want to see if it feels worth it to us. So I jump in and press him on how much is this all going to cost. He then proceeds to go through the different levels of product, like apparently there’s a deluxe and premium and different materials,  and now I’m getting agitated because it’s probably been twenty minutes or so and it’s just a GutterGuard! It does one thing! How are there so many different options to a product that either keeps leaves and debris out of your gutters while letting the water flow through or doesn’t? Like really? Why in the world is your product not one thing? At this point I’m not sure how the guy responds or if he does or if I walk away, the scene just sort of dissolves.

That evening we’re at a bar or restaurant, but it’s a music venue with a stage. Like you walk in and there’s a sort of a small vestibule but there’s one or two cafe tables in that area before you walk into the main room. The small entryway-with-tables (where I am seated with a half-finished darkish amber beer, everyone else hasn’t arrived yet) has a little bit of late evening sun filtering through, the rest of the space is lit primarily blue. Through just a doorway it opens up and to your right it a full bar, a c-shaped rectangle. This is the “back” of the room. Up front (left walking in the door way) just past what could be a dance floor save for some tables is the stage, a low rectangular platform no more than twelve inches of elevation. A house kit and mic stand set up. There is a band playing later tonight, but they have not loaded in yet. The venue itself is not any real place I have been but the dimensions are somewhere in between the Firebird before it closed, and the Gramophone before it renovated, and the vibe is somewhere between the Dark room when there’s nothing going on, and the Emerald room at the Monocle, right before the doors open.

My parents arrive, and they may or may not be joined by someone else, but I feel like there is a fourth person, maybe my brother, maybe a friend of mine, possibly Logan Johnson. I grab my beer as we all wander in through the doorway to a low, round table on the opposite side, near the bar. There’s a bit of a time shift here, we may or may not order food, but eventually it is time for karaoke here. There are no visible screens, people just go on stage and seem to know the songs, but there is a songbook and song slips you give to the bar. At some point someone one stage is doing an odd cut from Falsettos. My awareness of what it is begins around “My name is Mendel.” When the karaoke performer gets to “His name is Mendel…” I start to sing along with the “Ahhs” and then I become aware of other voices singing, too. It is the long rectangular table directly in front of the stage seated with eight or ten late high school or early college age theatre kids. They wind up going back and forth with the various parts in the song, until eventually they are on stage in a line, doing some sort of dance with every thing. It may be “be alright for the rest of your life,” but I’m not confident at that point. They complete the song and file off through a doorway that probably leads to the kitchen. They return to their table.

The space goes quiet again. It’s not very full and there are not a lot of people doing karaoke. The band is going to arrive soon, so karaoke is almost over, last chance for anyone who wants to sing. I decide I’ll go ahead and do my typical “Hip to Be Square” by Huey Lewis and the News, so I grab the songbook. At some point Mom and Dad and possible other person have to go, so bye, thanks, see you later. I’m looking at the artist heading in the book and searching for the song underneath it, because there is a song code you have to write down on your slip, not just the name of the song. When my eyes shit from looking at the songbook to looking at the slip of paper, I forget the code and have to Look back at the songbook, but now I have to find the artist heading and song again. This goes on for a few repetitions, meanwhile other patrons are leaving. By the time I manage to fill out the slip, the only people in the bar are myself and the staff. I decide I don’t want to sing to an empty room.

I wake up.

Winter Weekend Travelogue: Pt 2, Saturday Evening thru Sunday

SATURDAY AFTERNOON/EVENING

Seated on a bench in a sunny corner of Washington Square Park. In Chicago, every park is a dog park.

Mikey is a – something smallish, medium. Maybe a chihuahua mix? I don’t know, he is decidedly too large from my experience to be a chihuahua, but his head carries a similar silhouette.

Anyway, Mikey has an old, dirty tennis ball – old and dirty to the extent that there is no certainty that it was ever green. Mikey fetches the ball, but proceeds to carry it around in his mouth. He does not show it off, he does not request it to be thrown again, he just trots around, socializing, holding the tennis ball.

Mikey does not play with his ball. Mikey possesses his ball.

I’m eating dinner at the Improv before the show. A passing stranger stops to compliment my watch. I thank them. They continue to stand in front of my table. I ask them if they are here to see a show. We tell each other which show we are going to see. We are attending different performances.

If I had more energy, I might invite them to sit and join me for a moment. We could talk more about men’s fashion accessories. But I hiked nearly six miles today in addition to ice skating. I just want to eat a burger and see a show. Maybe in the future I will travel with the express purpose of initiating extended, meaningful interactions with strangers.

“Well, I’ll leave you to your dinner.”
“Nice chatting, enjoy your show.”

I arrive at my friend’s place where I am staying the night. He warns me the radiator in the living room (where I will be sleeping) has something up with it and gets a bit noisy. I assure him I am a heavy sleeper. A few intermittently knocking pipes won’t be a bother.

I eventually find that this is not simply a noisy radiator. No, this is a heat exchange central relay station. This is a steam pipe trunk distribution venue. It is not only loud, but persistent. It gurgles and rattles and whines and churns for several minutes at a time.

The radiator, possibly possessed

SUNDAY

My hosts confirm that they, too, slept poorly.

We walk to breakfast at a place they haven’t tried yet. We purchase the last tacos before they sell out. We then go elsewhere to get some pastries as well, because three of us split four tacos.

I get on a train. My destination is more food.

“THIS IS SHERIDAN”

“I hear 7-11 is hiring some places.”
“I don’t know.”
“They’re starting at 14 an hour.”
“Oh?”
“I mean, I’m a manager at gamestop, but I mean – it’s like, I got the position, but I’m not getting paid manager wages, you know?”
“Yeah.”

“ADDISON IS NEXT”

I grab lunch with an old friend and catch up on where life has taken us all these years.

We enter a bookstore. Not even the greatest imagination could describe the aisles of shelves here as anything remotely resembling ADA compliance. There are shelves to the ceiling, stacks behind stacks, extending to the floor and window bays and behind the counter. In fact, I’m not even convinced there is a counter. There is only a chair in an alcove carved out of further stacks of books, up on which the proprietor of the shop sits.

A patron inquires about the availability of a certain item. The proprietor hops up from his throne and leads them directly to it in spite of what some may regard as clutter and disarray. This is his kingdom, these are his subjects, he knows their every coming and going.

Eighty-five to ninety percent of the selection is nonfiction. I purchase “The Best American Short Stories 1993.”

I tell you the truth

I have it in my mind to find a bar with a view, to relax and write. My feet are still fatigued from yesterday. I am aware of a cocktail lounge on an upper floor of the Hancock building, but research shows it as closing soon. The next nearest option, according to research, is the J. Parker, atop the Hotel Lincoln. It stands a meager twelve stories, but the rooftop is semi-open air, and placed across the street from Lincoln Park and the lake.

I enter the lobby.

“Are you here for the [indiscernible] event?”
“No, just looking for the rooftop bar.”
“That’s the event, this way.”

I am ushered past some stanchions where another host checks my ID and points me toward the elevator. Exiting the elevator past yet another host who shouts over the DJ’s beats, “You can purchase tickets for any of the drink stations at the bar.”

I have unwittingly found myself in the middle of a ski lodge themed costume party. Sunday Shenanigans at the Silverback Slopes. Matching the intensity of the music is the neon array of swishy jumpsuits, puffer vests, and go-fast jackets. All the attitude of Aspen, minus the actual skis. I order a drink and remove myself to the interior bar.

If not for fatigue, I may have jumped in and made some new friends, but instead I find the quietest corner and sit. And breathe. And relax. And listen. And write.

I could capture some of these conversations, but I’m sure you can well enough imagine.

To the train. To the station. To pass, perchance to sleep. To home, and to-morrow.

Winter Weekend Travelogue: Pt 1, Saturday

Maggie Daley Park in Chicago has this thing called the Skating Ribbon. It is an outdoor winding path circuit with elevation change, surfaced for ice skating in the winter. It captured my imagination the first time I heard about it, and a couple weeks ago I pulled the trigger on a train ticket to go check it out.

Sunrise, Illinois

Entering Chicago, the train passes a dry storage area for boats right off the canal. One very small cabin cruiser is moored in the water, ready for use. The larger yachts are winterized.

One boat has the name, “The Flying Wasp.”

Think before you speak. Think before you act. Think before you name anything, “The Flying Wasp.”

I pass a print ad in a window. An attractive couple smiles directly to camera. The prominent copy reads, “Flats Always.” Unfortunately this is not a much-desired promise from a purveyor of chicken wings. It is an advertisement for loft apartment living.

Overheard while skating: “It’s too slippery.”

There is a pop up booth with Blachawks branding. Passers-by try their skills by shooting a puck at a board with a few small holes cut out. The board is illustrated with the image of a hockey goalie. Successfully launch the puck through a hole and win a prize. Participants are able to earn a Blackhawks branded pop socket, or a bobblehead figurine fashioned after a member of the team.

A father wins a bobblehead doll. His full-sentence speaking toddler (I have no frame of reference for estimating the age of children) wants to open and play with the new toy now. The father advises his child that the figure is packed rather securely, and if he removes it now he may be unable to return it to the packaging, thus leaving the newly acquired toy at greater risk of breaking prior to bringing it home.

The child is devastated. The father continues to calmly administer reason.

Mother arrives. The child explains the situation. Mother instructs father to, “Just open it, it’s fine, it was free, it’s not a big deal.”

Father complies. The child is mollified.

We are waiting a half-hour for the ice to be resurfaced.

Some minutes later, the child announces a readiness to depart.

There is a screen playing hockey-related videos.

Correction: there is a screen playing one hockey-related video on a loop.

It is a short documentary film about Kendall Coyne, and her achievements, and being the first woman to compete in the NHL All-Stars Skills Competition. The film is good, but it is short enough that I have heard the full narrative enough times to be annoyed by the repetition.

I’m wandering around somewhat aimlessly and find myself on Michigan Avenue. I remove myself by a block to an adjacent street.

I am watching a video on a loop. This one is inside the Museum of Contemporary Art. It is captivating, colorful, unsettling, disorienting, fascinating, and eighteen minutes in length. I willfully watch it again.

Jenny Holzer, 1980-82, enamel on metal

The exhibit I spend the most time with is a series of surrealist installations. I am reminded of the works of bill wurtz. I am reminded of his song lyric, “I’m looking around this museum for paintings I relate to, even though most of them were painted by somebody else.”

There are machines in nature that do things we do not understand. These machines do things.

The museum cafe offers a self-service water spigot with two different cup styles available: small plastic disposables, and glass vessels with a height less than the measure of its diameter. Think an oversized ramekin for proportions. I select the plastic. Everyone else selects glass.

In the cafe sits a patron going full Warhol: blonde, swoopy mop and a black turtleneck. Despite the outfit, his manner is not brooding and pretentious. Rather, the conversation with his lunch companion appears spirited and effervescent. He excuses himself to use the restroom.

Reunion Travelogue 4: Return

When my brother picked me up from the airport a week ago it felt like we picked up a conversation we had been in the middle of however many months ago we last saw each other. When he dropped me off today the conversation on the ride to the airport was more of the same from the week. Nothing retrospective, nothing conclusive, no ceremony. I think that’s the correct way to interact with the world. Everything is positional. See you later.

Inspiration happens during those moments in between. Like when finishing an early morning beer at the airport bar, listening to an unfamiliar song on the speakers, thinking: why am not in a rock band?

While in California I went to world-class escape rooms in San Fransisco. Tomorrow I am going to Six Flags St. Louis. Roller coaster enthusiasts and escape room enthusiasts across the country look down on STL’s available selection in both categories. Do we have a prestige issue?

The adage, “Dont worry about what other people think about you,” cuts in some weird directions. Don’t be surprised when what you say affects how someone sees you.

I got a window seat this time. I want to know what all these reservoirs are. I want to know what all these rivers are. Whitewater rafting is manufactured adventure.

I successfully identified KC from the air because the Royals and Chiefs are parking lot roommates.

The flight attendant offered me a second coffee. I said I was fine, but she said she was trying to get rid of the tray. After unsuccessfully offering to the final row before me, I offered to consume the last cup. Good deed for the day.

What a stupid phrase. I did my good deed for the day. Let’s compete to see who can do the most good deeds in a day.

All Art Was Once New Art

(Note: I thought I’d avoid excessive parentheticals by placing extraneous commentary in footnotes, but that has only served to increase the amount of footnotes, and not decrease the parentheticals. But I suppose that’s my voice.)


Before it converted to a public service organization to identify and label bad drivers, 99.1 FM in St. Louis was the classical* music station. And on the breaks, the DJ repeated this wonderful catchphrase: “all music was once new music.” The point being that the pieces they broadcast were, at one time, contemporary to the culture and had never been heard before. And it’s no false equivalency to say that those composers were the pop stars of their time. If you don’t believe me, take a quick look at the life of Franz Liszt.

That mantra stuck with me, because when I first heard it, it immediately shifted my perspective. Before, I had a chronocentric relationship to any piece of media created prior to my cultural awareness. I may not have been able to articulate it, but all my life, if I encountered a piece of art, music, film, etc., I always viewed it as if it had always existed – as a time capsule and representation of the era. To my mind, classical music has always been hundreds of years old, Shakespeare’s works have always been a complete compendium known to all, and a portrait of the dead, historical, Charles I has always been a part of the eternal collection at the Saint Louis Art Museum. When you enter the world, everything is as it is, and has always been that way.

But the history of art is two-in-onefold: a search for human connection, and a response to all art before it (in that same search for human connection)**. When and how and why any media was created is equally as important*** as the perspective the individual experience an audience brings to the piece. So the point of the mantra, “all music was once new music,” is an implied petition that the audience ought to marry the original cultural context with the contemporary perspective – looking back to fully experience, evaluate, and value said music (or any other given media). “But Bradley,” you† say, “do you really expect me to research the social, political, and economic factors surrounding the creation of any piece of art I view?” By no means! While it certainly adds value to the experience, it is not necessary to the consumption of said media.

Now let’s put a pin in all that and talk about FEAR. Fear is a powerful motivator. Fear can drive us to action or inaction, but when it comes to choosing what media to consume, whether it is the risk of time spent, or time and money spent, the direction fear drives us is typically toward inaction. I fear that this twenty-two minute documentary of YouTube may not be worth my time, so I will instead choose to watch several shorter informative or comedic videos from unknown sources, because I perceive them individually as lower risks. Fear makes us less likely to give a chance to something unproven. To bring this around to my primary artistic discipline, it has been said that going to the theater is a leap of faith. And nowhere is the leap further, or the need for faith greater than with new works.‡

Which brings me to the pivot: I am not arguing (though I do agree) that it is valuable to reconsider the classics with fresh and re-contextualized eyes. But rather to look at the inverse of the adage that catalyzed this conversation. All new art has the potential to become old art. If all art was once new art, how does new art become old art? Did the classics persist because they are good, or do we view them as good because they have persisted? And what about the pieces that have not persisted? Do they lose value because they take up less bandwidth in the public consciousness? You won’t hear Sopwith Camel on the oldies station, but does that diminish the fact that they got minor regional airplay in their time? And some college kid in the late 70’s was so impressed with their sound he called record stores all over the state and drove cities away to find a copy their album?

If it sounds like I’m making a postmodern argument that all media is inherently equal, well – yes and no. I don’t believe that the postmodernism is a viable philosophy to carry at one’s core. However, it is useful counter to other extreme views. It protects us from the trap of measuring everything down to the ultimate dismissal of the idea that something can have intrinsic value. And art, by the definition above, by nature has intrinsic value.

Everyone is participating in the search for human connection through the creation of media, and the consumption of said media. And the value of that media, or art, is not defined by how successful it is in a capitalist structure, but rather by how it creates and uncovers human connection. This is why art is a fundamental human right. We are all participants whether we think we are or not, so make the most of every interaction. You may wander into an independent art gallery, or hear a songwriter in a coffeeshop, or see a play you’ve never heard of – and maybe you will find something you didn’t have before. You may connect with a perspective you didn’t think you could connect with, you may learn about a fear or desire you didn’t know you had. Do not allow yourself to be driven by fear to the familiar. Your neighbor needs an audience. You need an audience. New art is vital to the human experience, so make be a part of it.


*I am aware of the distinct genres such as baroque and romantic that are often erroneously lumped in with it classical, but for simplicity of semantics I’m using the fallacious term as an umbrella to cover a few centuries of piano, chamber, and orchestral music. I know it’s wrong, but it’s common in the vernacular, and we’re not going to linger here too long, so write your own blog post if you have a problem with it.
**Okay, so this thesis is moot, and I’m not taking the time to fully develop and defend it now, but maybe I will at a later date. Even if it’s not entirely correct, it’s not entirely wrong.
***Once again, moot and fairly postmodern, but go with it.
†the strawperson
‡I first heard this in a curtain speech before a play at Tesseract Theatre Company, but I know they stole it from someone else, so I’m not really sure where the credit is due.

 

Reunion Travelogue 3: Mid-week

Camping at a coffeeshop. I’m on vacation, visiting family. This local grind ‘n’ brew is on the small town main drag, but it’s the middle of the week, and even if this was a destination it would be an off-peak season, but I don’t think they have tourists here.

Am I the only person with a social fantasy that a stranger will approach me, break the ice, and then ask me to tell them my life story?

So it’s quiet. So I work on personal projects. So I’m productive.

Prior travelogues felt more inspired. Does this mean I have traveled poorly?

Is there a market for flashnonfiction?

I traveled from home to see people. I saw people. Do we not see the people we live with?

Reunion Travelogue 2: In The Air & On The Ground

The Flight

I came prepared. I downloaded some podcasts, I have an actual book, and worst case scenario the flight offers wifi for $8.

However, I find myself waiting as long as I can before I decide to do something to pass the time.

It doesn’t feel appropriate to engage my diversions until I have had my ginger ale and pretzels. There is an order, a ritual. We push back, we take off, we climb and fail to identify anything on the ground by sight. Then snacks are served, and then the flight has begun.

It’s a strategic choice, too. The longer I can go sitting, doing nothing, the less time I have to occupy until we touch down, therefore making the flight feel quicker.

Part of me wishes we had to take turns rowing or something to make the plane go. Travel is active. Riding on a plane is not.

A woman on the opposite aisle ahead of me is playing an iPad slot machine game. She wins. A lot. She tires of that and plays a differently themed slot machine game on her iPad. She cycles through several different themed slot machine games. The flight is four hours long.

Flight attendants who wear watches: do they constantly re-set to local time or pick a zone and do the math?

I wanted to listen to the Falsoettos cast album, but I didn’t download it before leaving. It’s about time. I listen to Follies instead.

You don’t have to be a star to be a great actor, and you don’t have to be a great actor to be a star.

——–

On the Ground

Saturday evening was spent in conversation.

Sunday morning was spent in conversation. The rest of the day was fun and games and new strangers.

These strangers are friends with my family. I have conversations with them as if they are friends.