“two tribes” – frankie goes to hollywood (1984)

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Donald Trump is positioning himself to become a wartime president.  In his ongoing mission to delegitimize American democracy and establish an authoritarian regime, the ultimate endgame Trump is achieving to secure his position is create global instability so severe that it results in multi-national armed conflict.  His recent actions have made this abundantly clear and an eventuality we all should consider should things continue.

Consider his recent summit in Singapore where Trump met with Kim Jong Un.  His administration is positioning this as a historic summit that signifies peace between two adversarial nations.  Part of that messaging includes blaming the previous presidential administrations, both Republican and Democrat, for failing to create a peaceful relationship.  Trump has had his photos taken with Kim and they are both smiling so, as the official position of the administration, this means Trump was able to “make a deal” and “win big” at something he claims that the previous presidents were to weak or inexperienced to accomplish.

Seeing images of the summit made me so angry.  When I saw the North Korean flag displayed in a way to suggest it was equal to the American flag, it was such a slap to the face to everyone who desires freedom for all and condemns regimes that starves and murder millions of their own people.  Trump didn’t make it a secret how much he loved Kim.  Trump viewed him as an effective leader and praised him repeatedly.

This summit served as a mean to legitimize Kim on a global scale.  Trump can claim all he wants about how he made a great deal with the North Korean leader, but he was played.  Kim doesn’t have to get ride of his nuclear programs, Trump has ceased military exercises in South Korea, and Kim is seeking to strike a deal to build a Trump Tower in his country.  If this wasn’t enough to convince even Trump’s most ardent supporters that he values his own fortune over national interests, I don’t know what would.

If only this summit was the only thing Trump was actively doing to disgrace this nation.  Trump, whether by his own will or the will of others, is playing this game on multiple levels.  At the same time he is manipulated by and kissing Kim’s ring, Trump does this at the same time he is destabilizing our relationships with this country’s most loyal allies.

Trump recently issues high tariffs against Canada.  Under the guise of “national security,” Trump declares that his next move to keep America first is to renegotiate or eliminate deals he believes are unfair to the United States.  There is no reason for such a move to take place against Canada.  Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not taking this lightly.  He is retaliating with his own tariff that go into effect in July.

These tariffs mean more than just higher prices for dairy or beer.  A major economic shift is coming and these tariffs only exacerbate the situation.  According to the latest quarterly outlook from the National Association for Business Economists, two-thirds of economists believe that a recession is coming 2020 with an economic decline that could begin as early as 2019.  The increased tariffs and trade wars Trump is initiating, in addition to his corporate tax cuts, make it likely that this recession will come even sooner than that.  This recession is believed to be as bad or worse than the last one in 2008.

A few weeks ago, the G7 summit was held in Canada.  These summits are designed so the seven leading (formerly eight before Russia was removed) economic nations to discuss various issues covering topics such as the economy, global security, and other related matters.  Prior to the summit, Trump made public statements in the media that Russia should be allowed to participate in the summit.  Our allies and neighbors already had a fractured image of the United States, but these statements by Trump only continued to deteriorate our relationships with the other six nations.  One image released by Angela Merkel’s staff signified the mood of the summit.  In the photo, Merkel is leaning on her hands over a desk surrounded by allies as she stares down at Trump who is sitting like a petulant child with his arms crossed and a smug smile on his face.  You could feel Merkel’s ire radiating from the image and served as the perfect symbol of this nation’s place in the world right now.

Thins are scary on an international level, but they are even worse at home.  For several decades, the GOP has been quite successful at branding themselves as the party of the common man.  As part of their anti-rational and anti-intellectual mission, anyone who doesn’t fit in their box is deemed as an elitist who is out of touch with the American people.

Since the 1980s, the Republicans and the extremists wing within it have been consistently on point with their message.  I have always seen politicians or the media denounced as being tools of the liberal agenda, but things are getting scary.  This messaging has now influenced public perception of federal institutions and basic tenets of democracy.  Whole political institutions such as the FBI and Department of Justice have now been labeled as tools of a rigged system that only Trump and his supporters have the power to save the American people from.

Trump ran during the 2016 presidential election because wouldn’t have been able to win before.  However, a rift in America has been growing since the 1980s and 2016 was the prime time to exploit it.  Trump and his administration’s message isn’t random or chaotic.  It is well-thought out and intricately planned.  Their mission is to create a civil discourse so irreversible that we could be on the verge of another Civil War.

So, how does this all relate to my belief that Trump is seeking to become a wartime president?  By creating mass instability at home and abroad, it becomes a platform by which he can rally his base and execute executive powers that are available, or even made up, during times of crisis.  Recent polls show that over half of Republicans support Trump postponing the 2020 election.  Now, these Republicans hold that position as a means to combat the non-existent problem of voter fraud, but we have seen examples where elections favor leaders currently sitting in office during times of war.  Franklin Roosevelt was a third term in 1940 and a fourth term 1944.  To be fair, presidential term limits weren’t in place yet and those elections weren’t postponed due to World War II.  However, FDR won with over 400 electoral votes each time.  Even if the 2020 election wasn’t postponed, who is to say that Trump wouldn’t experience similar results if a conflict were to arise that kept people from the polls or even seeking a change at a time when it becomes so important to maintain the status quo?

Yesterday, I read that Russia may have modernized a nuclear weapons storage bunker in Kaliningrad.  Allegedly, these major renovations have been ongoing since 2016 and likely to resume operational status soon.  Positioned between Poland and the Baltic, the site in Kaliningrad “could potentially serve Russian Air Force or Navy dual-capable forces.  But it could also be a joint site, potentially servicing nuclear warheads for both Air Force, Navy, Army, air-defense, and coastal defense forces in the region, according to Hans Kristensen, the director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists.

Such a renovation project could signify Russia preparing for an escalation in tension with Eastern Europe; a tension that has been steadily increasing since the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Given Russia’s role in undermining the 2016 U.S. presidential election, its removal from the G8 (thus becoming the G7), and the decline of America’s relationship with its allies, it is likely that Russia is looking to secure itself as the world’s dominant superpower.  Thus possibly leading to further land expansion, armed conflicts, and infiltration in foreign governments to disrupt national security and stability.  Welcome to the Cold War repackaged and rebranded for the Millennial generation and Donald Trump is at the helm and ready to get rich off of everyone at the expense of this country’s most valued traditions and institutions.

One of my favorite anti-war songs from the Cold War era is “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.  Released in 1984 on their album Welcome to the Pleasuredome, it is a nihilistic but enthusiastic statement about nuclear war.  Comparing the conflict of a nuclear war to something as trivial, but emotionally significant to some, as a soccer match, Frankie Goes to Hollywood believes that there is nothing more to gain from war than just a score.

Trump wants to be a wartime president because he is scared.  As each day passes in Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election, Trump can feel the noose tightening.  Staff members are leaving and some people close to the campaign are facing serious jail time.  I don’t know if this goes all the way to Donald Trump or what his fate will be (he has openly discussed his ability to pardon himself), but he is a man who is being cornered.  And like a scared animal, he will lash out any way he can.  And if he could look like a powerful leader in the process, then all the better.  That is why I believe Trump wants a war and he doesn’t care how he gets it.

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“long slow goodbye” – queens of the stone age (2005)

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On Friday morning, I awoke to the news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide.  Like many people around the world, I was gutted.  This wasn’t just because this was a famous person who passed away.  Bourdain was a kind, loving, and generous person who represented the very best in humanity.  His honest and curious approach to life was endearing and inspired me to find and focus on the elements that connect all human beings together.  He exemplified a humanist belief that despite our cultural and social differences, people are driven and connected by similar needs and desires that are blind to our prejudices and societal norms.

Bourdain worked in restaurant and hotel kitchens until his 40s.  He published Kitchen Confidential, a behind-the-scenes memoir of the culinary industry, and became a successful author.  By the next year, he was making a television show and published A Cook’s Tour, a memoir of him searching for the perfect meal and the template that would define the rest of his career.

There was a lot to admire about Bourdain.  Most people, and this includes me, were envious of his life style.  Watching episodes of his programs No Reservations and Part Unknown, it was easy to be caught up in the excitement of traveling around the world in order to meet exciting people, see interesting places, eat amazing food, and drink remarkable spirits.  Who wouldn’t want a career like that?  It looked like one of those jobs where the work didn’t seem like work.  Of course, television has the power to filter out the mundane and only show us the glamour.  However, I didn’t care.  Based on what I was seeing on television, Bourdain was living the life.

I envied Bourdain’s life.  I was vocal about this on social media numerous times.  IT was easy to be enamored by that because, by comparison, my life isn’t as exciting.  I have good and exciting things in my life, but the absolute freedom I projected onto Bourdain’s life was alluring and I would think about how wonderful it would be to step into his shoes.

Bourdain’s suicide was a shock to the system in a few ways.  We lost a truly remarkable media personality.  However, it reinforced a few life lessons I would conveniently forget when I watched his shows.  Two days before his death, I tweeted “.@Bourdain is living my ideal life.”  I know that tweet was superficial and only spoke to my own personal desire to not work and travel the world.  When I heard about Bourdain’s suicide, I had to think about what that comment really signified.

I thought about that comment and similar ones I had made before.  With that kind of statement of desire, I realized that it was based on an assumption.  I assume that I could be happy with travelling the world and eating amazing foods, so Bourdain should have been happy travelling the world and eating amazing foods.  That lifestyle, for me, signified that Bourdain was a happy and completely free spirit.  When you make an assumption like that, you tend to forget about he invisible scars people have.

Bourdain has experienced substance abuse issues throughout his life.  Before he became a media personality, he habitually abused hard drugs and alcohol as a result of his depression.  Bourdain was always open and honest about his struggle with addiction and his pursuit to filling a hole he felt compelled to fill with heroin and booze.  Even in his books and on his television programs, he would open up and address these things when temptation hit him during a particularly difficult scene.  That struggle was always there.  Whether it was front and center or hidden in the background, that fight never goes away.  And Bourdain addressed it in a way that was honest, bold, and could help people struggling with the same issues.

Bourdain was not only known for his love food, but he was a huge music enthusiast.  Musicians would appear on his show to eat some tasty food and philosophize on life.  There’s an episode of Part Unknown where Bourdain is dining with Iggy Pop.  Bourdain jokes about them eating a healthy meal when they both have reputations of hard drugs and hard living when they were younger.  Bourdain asks Iggy about is important to him after all he’s been through and Iggy replies that he enjoys the love he gets and wants to spend more time with the people who give it.

Bourdain dined with many musicians he admired.  There are episodes of Parts Unknown and No Reservations where Bourdain is joined by his musical heroes such as Alice Cooper, Serj Tankian, and Questlove.  However, no musical encounter on any of his shows were as intimate or heartfelt as the episode with Josh Homme.

Homme appeared on a 2011 episode of No Reservations where Bourdain visited Homme’s Rancho De La Luna.  Together, Homme and Bourdain travel around the California desert.  They visit a strange swap meet, drive around in old cars, and even record a song together at a studio in Joshua Tree called “Lonely T-Bird.”  This was an inside look into their intimate friendship and really illustrated the love Bourdain had for good food and good people.

Homme was gutted when he heard about Bourdain’s suicide.  His band, Queens of the Stone Age, had a performance scheduled at Denmark’s NorthSide Festival. During the set, Homme dedicated a performance of “Long Slow Goodbye,” the closing track of their 2005 studio album Lullabies to Paralyze, to Bourdain (At 46:00 here).

My life is good and I have plenty to be thankful for.  It can be easy to become distracted and focus on how green you think someone else’s grass is.  However, there are things you and your assumptions cannot see.  Someone who may seem content and living their best life could be fighting internal demons that you may or may not be strong enough to deal with, but they feel compelled to project a sense of normalcy they can appear to fit in.  That’s the danger of making assumptions about people.

If you or anyone you know is suffering and thinking about suicide, please talk to someone.  It only takes five minutes of talking to a friend, a loved one, or a counselor for those thoughts to start to recede.  For many, suicide is a spontaneous and permanent reaction to a temporary solution.

“phantom of aleppoville” – benjamin clementine (2017)

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On Sunday, I saw David Byrne perform live at Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.  The tour was to support his latest studio album American Utopia which was his first solo studio release since 2004’s Grown Backwards.  Being a Talking Heads fan, I was eager to see Byrne perform.  Though I wasn’t that familiar with his work outside of Talking Heads, I knew there would be enough of his old band’s material to justify me going.  Plus, he promised an innovative performance so that piqued my interest.

However, this week’s blog post isn’t about Byrne or his concert or his latest album.  As part of my structure for the blog, I don’t repeat an artist once I write an entry with them at the center.  Also, it varies how I approach these things.  It could be an event I saw, a general feeling I’m experiencing, profiling an artist I enjoy, or a commentary on what is happening in the news.  It all depends on how I feel.  Before going to the show, it would’ve been likely I would end up writing about Byrne.  However, I’ll save him for another day because I want to talk about his opening act.

When I bought the tickets, I had no idea Byrne would have a tour opener.  I generally forget about tickets for things several months away because I have other life things to focus on.  This also helps in keeping me away from spoilers.  I don’t like spoilers or knowing too much about a show or performance.  So, I’ll typically avoid setlists or reviews or anything that provides context and information on the show.  That’s why I didn’t know Benjamin Clementine was the opening act.

I was not familiar with Benjamin Clementine nor did I recognize his name.  I happened to walk into a store the day of the David Byrne concert and see his name.  He appeared on it wearing a dapper suit and stood against a solid gray background.  The text on the poster read that Clementine was touring for his new album with David Byrne.  What was funny was that the text read “Benjamin Clementine with David Byrne” and that Byrne’s name was smaller and popped less than Clementine’s name.  I found the humor in such boldness to position yourself as top-billed for a tour where you’re the supporting act.  I enjoyed it.

That poster still didn’t tell me anything about Clementine and I was too busy to look him up. I had things to do before meeting with my friend at the show.  Plus, I was more focused on Byrne anyway.  That was who I shelled out hard earned cash to see anyway.

I met my friend and we took our seats that were way up in the gallery of the Auditorium Theatre.  The balcony area below us was quite a drop and the makeshift railing held by pipes and vice grips didn’t seem too sturdy as patrons grabbed and shook it to keep steady until they found their seats.  Also, the ambient rain and thunder noises playing in the theatre (probably curated by Byrne for pre-show ambience) didn’t help with my awareness of our position in the theatre.

On the stage was a piano, some guitars with pedals, amps, and some child-sized mannequins laying at the feet of an adult-sized mannequin draped with an American flag.  Based on what I knew about Byrne’s album, I thought those props were for him.  It didn’t cross my mind that they were meant for the opener.

The lights dimmer and two spotlights shone down on the piano and amps.  Clementine appeared on stage wearing an open jacket and white cowboy hat.  He was barefoot.  He walked slowly around the stage.  As he passed the instruments and mannequins, he would ring a bell at varying intervals.  This went on for several minutes as droning music played in the background.  This was part of the show and I intended to concentrate all my attention on it.  However, my fellow peanuts in the gallery didn’t seem to care.  They were there for Byrne and there was a lot of a noise and talking as they made cynical comments about the opener walking around in circles.  It was funny for them, but I felt their behavior was disrespectful.  So, I tried to focus on the show.

I didn’t know Clementine or his music (any mention of his songs in this post come from post-show research).  He opened with a song called “Condolence” and I was immediately engaged by it.  He skillfully played his piano while his bandmate played a droning guitar and activated a control board that played electronic rhythms.

Prior to the show starting, my friend told me that Clementine won the Mercury Prize for his first studio album At Least for Now which was released in 2015.  Upon hearing that first song, I could hear why.  Already, I could tell that Clementine was a masterful piano player.  And I found that impressive.  However, what I found thrilling was his voice and the delivery of his lyrics.  Clementine has such a deep and soulful voice with a cadence and delivery that is reminiscent of Nina Simone.  In fact, I’ll take that back.  He sounded exactly what I would imagine Nina Simone would sound like if she were a tall, androgynous Englishman.

After performing “Condolence,” Clementine returned to waking circles around the set.  His pace changed and he rang his bell at quicker intervals.  When he returned to the piano, he played “Phantom of Aleppoville” from his 2017 studio album I Tell a Fly.  This song sold me on Clementine as an artist.  It opens quietly with Clementine scat singing.  He goes on and he increases the dynamics of the performance until he is pounding on the piano screaming “leave me alone” to the point where your can hear the distortion and know that the soundboard was working on overtime trying to handle the various changes Clementine would go through.

Clementine only performed six songs for his opening set and he did so masterfully.  I was amazed by how adventurous he was in his musicianship.  He has a solid gold voice and plays the piano beautifully.  He could churn out a typical pop album like Adele and become a commercial smash.  However, he throws his heart in experimentalism and avant garde pop devoid of melody and combining elements of free jazz and contemporary classical.  I haven’t been this impressed with an up-and-coming artist in a long time.

It was very disappointing that people were talking throughout his set.  I know he wasn’t the artist they paid to see, but he was deserving of their attention because he is so talented.  They found the walking around stage funny as well as Clementine kicking around a baby mannequin on stage.  Granted, I didn’t know what all of it meant.  But, I was still focused on what was happening because I recognized I was seeing something truly special.

In my research today, I have seen that Benjamin Clementine is making his way through music.  He appeared on the Gorillaz’s 2017 album Humanz.  I never listened to the whole album, so I missed him entirely.  But, I’ve been listening to his second studio album I Tell a Fly non-stop.  I have yet to hear his first album, but I have read I Tell a Fly is a richer departure that focuses on Clementine’s growth and continuing experimentalism.  I’ll get to it eventually, but I want to be absorbed by what I heard in concert.

“Phantom of Aleppoville” was the highlight for me from his set.  I’ve listened to the studio cut dozens of times.  It is an amazing track for sure, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the live performance.  That live performance was a treasure and I feel bad for the people around me who didn’t listen.

Narratively, “Phantom of Aleppoville” is about children being bullied which is a serious problem that lads to suicides and violence at home and in schools.  The United States has seen a rise in school shootings and some of the shooters who live cite bullying as one of their motivations.

The song also addresses the violence children face with war-torn countries at the hands of murderous dictators.  They know a unique kind of horror that isn’t known to many in our schools in America.  However, the song isn’t about the differences in those experiences.  It is about the similarities.  The trauma they experience have different causes, but the effect is still the same.

The message really speaks to me.  Whenever I am trying to get through a personal struggle or pain, one part of my healing process is to just dismiss it because other people around the world have it harder.  I think Why am I complaining about something so insignificant when people are starving or being murdered by their government?  It took me a long time to realize that I cannot think that way.  Sure, it is great to have that kind of perspective, so I don’t become an entitled dick.  However, I can’t live my life comparing myself to other people even if I am trying to focus on what is good in my life.  Everyone has problems that we must work through, but it is detrimental to one’s own mental health to compare themselves to other people.

I know I am going to listen to Benjamin Clementine nonstop all week.  And I am eager to see how his career evolves.  I would love to see him in concert where he is the highlight people paid to see.  Perhaps he’ll get the attention he deserves.

“prelude to 110 or 220/women of the world” – jim o’rourke (1999)

R-858706-1457737506-6931.jpegLast week, I went to see U2 perform two nights at the United Center in Chicago.  Since seeing U2 perform live for the first time in Nashville in 2011, I make it a point to see them every time they play near me.  Even if you aren’t a huge fan of their music, their live shows are incredibly entertaining and engaging with a production value that stands above the rest.  You also get a heavy dose of reality as U2 injects political statements into their performance and adds urgency to issues that many are not aware of or choose not to engage with.

Since Donald Trump became the United States president in 2017, U2 has ramped up the political message of their live shows.  Specifically, they have done so in a way that counteracts much of Trump’s ideology and the actions of his administration. Many of the policies that have come from Trump have been hurtful and directed towards the marginalized people of this country.  By attacking women and people of color, Trump has made it clear that the America he envisions is one filled with white men who support him.

Before the show begins, the large screen that sits in the middle of the arena displays animated protest signs.  The messages on the posters advocate for equal rights for women, refugees, those stricken by poverty, and other groups that have been affected by the increase of nationalism and white supremacy elevated by Trump.  The signs have sayings on them like “#NeverForget,” “Freedom Justice Equality,” and “Refugees Welcome” displayed over imagery that promotes the idea of people of different background coming together.

Throughout the show, U2 continues to remain on message whenever they tie in politics into their songs and performances.  The current tour, iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour, featured the first live performance of “Acrobat” from their 1991 album Achtung Baby.  Leading into that song, Bono uses an iPad and face recognition software to (awkwardly and with glitches) manifest the façade of Mr. MacPhisto over his own face and delves into a monologue about his devilish work he has done in recent years while existing away from the public eye since his glory days of Zoo TV in the early 1990s.  From Russian collusion to paying off porn stars to the riots in Charlottesville, Mr. MacPhisto declares he does his best work when you believe he doesn’t exist.

As the set continues, Larry Mullen, Jr. and Adam Clayton head to a different part of the stage while Bono and the Edge remain to perform an acoustic version of “Staring at the Sun from their 1997 album Pop.  This is fourth tour I’ve been too, but this was the very first time I heard a song from U2’s black sheep album in its entirety.  The screen goes blank while Bono and the Edge perform the song on the b-stage standing over a sun that appears on the screen of the stage’s floor.

It seems like such a somber and quiet affair with the audience focused on the two performers with no distractions coming from the screen. However, as Bono sings about not being the only going blind as he stares at the song, the sun they are standing becomes eclipsed.  As this unknown black mass obscures the sun, the large screen shows b-roll footage of white supremacists rioting at Charlottesville.

Admittedly, I was confused by what was happening and a little concerned.  The band has show violent b-roll at shows before, but always scored to heavy and brash sounds that conveys much anger.  Watching Richard Spencer and his followers carrying tiki torches and brandishing signs with hateful messages was troubling.  This event happened less than a year ago and resulted in the death of an activist named Heather Heyer, a woman who died a hero but whose death has become a point of pride for the Alt-Right movement.

After hearing Bono repeatedly belting out about going blind, I started to see the point he was making.  “Staring at the Sun” fades away and Larry begins a rhythmic pounding on his drums.  The hateful men from Charlottesville continue to walk across the giant screen.  This all seems like it is going on far too long.  Then, the band launches into their Martin Luther King, Jr. anthem “Pride (In the Name of Love)” while the footage of Charlottesville disappears in a sudden cut to be replaced by footage of black women marching through Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement and the audience is awash with a cool, calming blue light.  This was welcomed relief after watching the footage of the hateful white men.

As awkward as that sequence was, I understood the message.  It was harsh and disturbing, but these are disturbing times.  This was the band’s way of wearing their feelings on their sleeves.  We see the show opening with progressively liberal protest signs then show us what blind hatred looked like, so what was next?

The band plays through two songs from their recent album Songs of Experience.  Back to back, Get Out of Your Own Way” and “American Soul” are declarations and pleas for America to return to its former glory of being a beacon of hope and prosperity for those who need it the most.  Now whether America really lived up to that standard is a point of valid criticism, but the country isn’t doing itself any favors by emboldening those who seek to actively destroy those ideals in the name of nationalism under the guise of patriotism.

The band then leaves the stage to take a break before the encore. During this time, a video plays on the main screen.  A woman walks into view (the Edge’s daughter) and stands still while various inspirational messages are scrawled around her.  Sayings like “Poverty Is Sexist” and None of Us Are Equal Until All of Us Are Equal” come into view and are applauded by the audience.  This is the messaging of the show coming in full circle.

During this video, the song “Prelude to 110 or 220/Women of the World” by Jim O’Rourke is playing.  Released in 1999 on his studio album Eureka, this song is a rendition of “Women of the World;” a 1983 folk song first recorded by Ivor Cutler and Linda Hirst.  The song consists of a single line repeated throughout and accompanied by folk guitar. “Women of the world take over, ‘cos if you don’t the world will come to an end, and it won’t take long.”

O’Rourke is a musician and producer best known for his with Sonic Youth and Wilco.  His version included in U2’s presentation is a remixed version keeping O’Rourke’s vocals and arrangement, but with added backing vocals and instrumentation with contributions from submissions by fans and singer Madison Ryann Ward.

It is a rather pleasant song with a great message behind it.  Even on its own, the presentation was powerful.  However, it served as a great bookend to the show’s political message and a great segue into “One” which is not only one of the band’s most popular songs but also an anthem of sorts (that require some liberal interpretations of the song’s original meaning).

U2 are not holding any punches when it comes to increasing the visibility of women in their show.  I had seen this when they toured in 2017 for the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree.  On that tour, they featured a video collage of famous women during “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” a short film featuring a Syrian refugee girl named Omaima, and many declarations that we turn “history” into “HERstory” during a performance of “Mysterious Ways.”

The band is certainly not blind to what is happening the world.  Dangerous men are disrupting democratic elections, tearing immigrant families apart at the border, and making it national policy to reduce the rights of women domestically.  None of this should have been new to the people who attend a U2 concert.  You see these things all over the news on a daily basis.  However, for some, going to a concert means getting a break from the heartache the media depicts.  And while certainly won’t criticize someone who taking a mental break from these things, I cannot let them turn a blind eye and close their minds.  If art is a reflection of life, we need everyone looking and paying attention and we need our artists to take a stand and help guide us.

“space station docking” – alex north/jerry goldsmith & the national philharmonic orchestra (1993)

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Last week, I had the privilege of seeing a really interesting screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.  Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic sci-film came into my life in high school when I bought a retrospective box set of the director’s work starting with 1962’s Lolita and ending with 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut.  Kubrick became my favorite filmmaker and 2001 was a point of fascination even though I was at an age where I didn’t fully understand what it meant.  It is a work of art the reveals more to you as you grow older and see it from a unique perspective.

For years, I was satisfied with my DVD copy that would I watch on my 27” tube television.  I was satisfied because that was all I had.  Theaters where I lived didn’t play old movies let alone films like 2001.  I wouldn’t have a theater like that until I moved to Chicago in 2011 and discovered the Music Box.

The screening I went to last week was my third time seeing 2001 in a theater.  The previous two times were also at the Music Box.  The Music Box is one of very few movie theaters that can screen 70mm film.  The first two times seeing 2001 were in 70mm.  In fact, they were original 70mm prints.  Of course, seeing a film like 2001 is better in a theater on 70mm than on a 27” television.  No doubt about it.  And it is kind of cool to say that I’ve seen the film on an original print.  However, those prints aren’t that great.  Over the course of 50 years, the prints have been screened hundreds of time and they accumulate scratches and dirt.  It is still a great visual experience, but you still see the age.  However, last week’s screening was on a whole different level.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the classic film.  To mark the occasion, filmmaker Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight, Interstellar, Dunkirk) embarked on a project to create new 70mm prints from the original film negatives.  He produced five prints and debuted the first one at the Cannes Film Festival.

What is an important distinction about these prints is that they are not restorations.  Nolan and his team didn’t take an existing print and clean it up.  Newly minted prints were created and showcased.  When I saw one of these prints on Friday, it was quite gorgeous and the experience felt like I was watching the film for the first time.  The print also included a proper overture and intermission.  The experience was designed to recreate how one would’ve seen 2001 when it first premiered in 1968.  And to top it all off, the screening I went to was screening the print for the first time ever.  Perfect timing.

As always, every time I revisit a film I love, I find new things I missed.  I pick up visual or narrative details that I was unaware of or had entirely forgotten.  And these details matter.  Kubrick didn’t just put things in his film haphazardly.  Everything had a role, purpose, or subtle meaning that contributed to the film. Nothing was accidental.

Or that is at least the legend that is associated with Kubrick.  Now, don’t get me wrong. He was a masterful filmmaker who made his films deliberately and meticulously.  That isn’t up for debate.  However, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t open to changes in his film.  The final product of one of his movies isn’t a 100% genuine reflection of his initial concepts.  While Kubrick made sure he got an image the way he wanted (even if it meant crafting huge sets, buying outrageously expensive lenses, or performing over a hundred takes), there was times where a film was improved by happy accident.

Even if you haven’t seen 2001, the film’s use of music and imagery is so ubiquitous in our society and we’ve seen it parodied or referenced hundreds of time.  It is impossible to hear “Also sprach Zarathustra” without thinking about early man throwing a bone in the air or to not imagine spaceships sailing through space as part of a cosmic ballet when one hears “The Blue Danube.”  Those visual and aural associations are so ingrained in our consciousness that one cannot use those musical pieces without the Kubrick association.

The use of music is perfect in both its execution and the pieces selected.  They fit so well and act as their own character that drives the narrative.  There has been so much to say about the music that I wonder what, if anything at all, can I possibly contribute.  However, it is mind-boggling to find out that 2001’s iconic music was almost not used.

Alex North is a notable Hollywood composer who had worked with Kubrick before when writing the score for Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove.  North was commissioned to create a score for 2001.  Kubrick, during the production, had provided North whole sequences to provide a visualization to help him craft a score.  These sequences had “guide pieces” that acted as filler to provide an aesthetic reference point for North to compose an original score.

North composed the score and sent it to Kubrick.  When the film premiered, North attended and then found out that not one piece of his music was used.  During post-production, Kubrick trashed everything North had sent him and used the guide pieces from his earlier cuts.  These guide pieces were the Strauss pieces that have garnered legendary status.

North was devastated, but there was nothing he could do.  All he had left from his work was a cassette containing the score.  He had only played it for his friend and fellow composer Jerry Goldsmith.  Then, somehow, the tape was lost.

In 1993, Jerry Goldsmith finally recorded the original score that North provided him.  The missing cassette miraculously resurfaced one week before the recording and was used to help Goldsmith match tempos and dynamics based on North’s original intentions.  Performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, the album was released as Alex North’s 2001 (The Legendary Original Score – World Premiere Recording).  This would be the first time the public would hear the original score since the release of 2001 in theaters 25 years prior.

It is a strange experience to listen to Alex North’s original 2001 score.  Primarily because I am so used to the music that appeared in the final cut and it’s influence on our culture.  Not only that, but the music sounds more Hollywood.  And that makes sense because that was what North was best at.  When I think of 2001, I think of Strauss.  Everyone thinks of Strauss.  We’re meant to think of Strauss.  So, North’s score becomes an interesting film score footnote and a curiosity for those who think about how different things would be if 2001 was scored differently.

Take “Space Station Docking” from Alex North’s 2001 as an example.  The final cut used “The Blue Danube” which is such a classic waltz and evokes elegance.  Watching the spaceship dock with the station in the final cut feels graceful like a ballet.  Alex North’s “Space Station Docking,” intended for the same scene, is graceful and elegant as well.  However, you can tell that it is a derivative piece.  North saw early cuts with Strauss’ classic work and tried to emulate the same feelings.  However, North’s score sounds dated.  It sounds like a typical film score from that cinematic era.  It evokes sense of being good enough, but not great.  “The Blue Danube” is timeless.  “Space Station Docking” is a score reflective of its own time regardless how much North tried to recreate Strauss with a futuristic flare.

I know I’m being harsh here.  North didn’t choose for his music to be discarded from the film.  So, I can’t hold it against him.  However, what I’m speaking more to is Kubrick’s creative intent.  He made the right call.  His original plan may have been to use Straus as reference points.  That is the process a filmmaker goes through to get where they want to go.  However, it takes a genius to make the call to keep that guide music.  His original intent wasn’t to use Strauss but rather North.  The ability to change direction and be open to new ideas is essential.  And it works.  It worked so well that it is out of this world.

“this is america” – childish gambino (2018)

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Donald Glover is having his moment in the sun and I am all for it.  This month, he released the groundbreaking video for his single “This Is America” and is starring in the Star Wars spin-off Solo: A Star Wars Story.  After seeing “This Is America” on repeat a few dozen times, I reflected on the earliest memories I have of Donald Glover and when his career first started.

Donald Glover came onto my radar when I was in college.  He was one third of an Internet sketch comedy group called Derrick Comedy.  Joined by DC Pierson and Dominic Dierkes, the trio made these visually poor, but hilarious, comedy videos that were just absurd and wonderful.  Classic bits like “Bro Rape,” “New Bike,” and “Spelling Bee” were shared over social media with friends and became some of our earliest introductions to the concept of viral videos.

I actually got to see Derrick Comedy perform live in New York City.  I was sent to NYC to attend a conference with some colleagues from my college radio station.  After long, boring days of panels and discussions, we explored the city.  I don’t remember much of the live sketch comedy I saw Derrick Comedy perform at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, but I had a great time.

When Derrick Comedy released a well-produced feature-length film in 2009 called Mystery Team, I was excited to rent it from the local Blockbuster Video.  It was fine enough, but it seemed like the Derrick Comedy trio milked this sketch group as much as they could.  Where could Derrick Comedy go from there?  Book deals?  Television show on Comedy Central?  I had no idea, but it all started to seem played out and their best material being their early viral videos on YouTube.

Or it could have been the fact Donald Glover joined a television show called Community.  I never watched Community, but I had friends who did and I was aware that the show had a big cult following.  When that show premiered in 2009, I was more focused on my last year of college.  I had an internship at Country Music Television in Nashville during my first semester and my second semester was spent finishing my capstone project and focusing on finding a job.  I didn’t have time to catch up on the latest pop culture trends at the end of the aughts, so Donald Glover faded from my radar.

Until 2013, I had totally forgotten about Donald Glover.  That was the year he released his studio rap album Because the Internet.  I heard some snippets from it, but I wasn’t impressed.  It didn’t really speak to me.  Kudos to Glover for expanding his horizon as a performer, but I remember a lot of people being confused by this direction he was taking because it conflicted with the comedic image he cultivated for himself during his career so far.  So, like before, he just fell off my radar.

So, imagine my surprise when Disney announced the casting for their Han Solo Star Wars spin-off and Glover was casted as a young Lando Calrissian.  I was really skeptical because I only knew him from his sketch comedy work and his foray into hip-hop.  But when Disney dropped the first teaser trailer for Solo: A Star Wars Story and you got a first glimpse as Glover as Lando, I was already sold. Without even hearing him utter a single word, I could see he was born for that part.

I took some time to look back at Glover’s career over the last few years.  The only thing I had heard he was in was Community and that was cancelled.  I then became aware of his show Atlanta which premiered in 2016 and has earned Glover a ton of critical praise.  Friends have also told me to watch that show because of how well-crafted and surreal the show is.  I intend to, but I couldn’t believe how far Glover had gone over the last few years.  Besides his work on Community and Atlanta, Glover has only had bit and supporting parts here and there.  It is quite a big jump to go from viral Internet video to being in a Star Wars film within one decade.

Not only is Glover making serious moves in the world of television and film, he has significant praise for his music as well.  On May 5th, Donald Glover performed as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live has his rap persona Childish Gambino.  During the show, he performed “This Is America” which is a new single from a yet unnamed forthcoming album.  While the performance was fine, the music video for the song was uploaded on YouTube simultaneously and quickly became viral and studied.

The music video is a visual masterpiece that cleverly addresses the issues of gun violence and black deaths at the hands of police and white supremacists.  What makes the music video for “This Is America” work so well is the depth of composition.  The video contains several layers of meaning which require multiple viewings in order to catch everything.  While you’re focusing on something in the foreground, things are taking place in the background or in the periphery that either contribute to or contradict the scene you’re focused on.  There are a lot of visual elements in the video and it is mesmerizing.

In addition to the composition of the video and all the moving elements inherent in it, the video also works because of the deep symbolism throughout which has sparked much discussion and debate as viewers continue to dissect every frame.  For example, Childish Gambino walks and moves in a stance that is similar to the Jim Crow caricature that fueled racism in its time.  Performing as this racist caricature, Childish Gambino shoots a man in the back of the head and guns down a church choir with an automatic weapon.  Both acts are powerful statements about the culture of gun violence in America (the church choir murder referencing Dylann Roof’s murder of nine worshipers in a church in South Carolina), but they hold deeper meanings.  After each shooting, Childish Gambino gently places the weapons in silk to be cared for while the black bodies are hauled away in dehumanizing fashion (and if you missed it, Death comes in a pale horse on the extreme left followed by a police car).  In the end, Childish Gambino runs towards the camera with police chasing after him.

“This Is America” is a powerful cultural and political statement.  However, much of that statement is made with the video.  The song on its own is just ok.  Musically, it feels like a standard trap song.  While the lyrics do address gun violence in America, they are fairly basic and don’t pack the emotional punch as the music video does.

Donald Glover knows how to make a great video.  He is a talented artist who is adept at various mediums.  And the great thing about him is that he continues to grow.  Since the release of “This Is America,” he is being talked about all over the Internet.  While the song alone wouldn’t generate that kind of buzz, he set against a medium that would convey his message in a way that is shocking and memorable.  Since Donald Glover isn’t just a musician, his art relies on blending mediums to achieve the intended impact.  With the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story, Glover will reach an even bigger audience that Disney can attract.  For someone who I largely ignored (forgotten about really) for a long time, I am excited in seeing how far he’ll go and how he’ll continue to challenge his audience.

“superstar” – carl anderson (1973)

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Last week, I had the opportunity to see the latest production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.  I was excited to see this musical at such a prestigious cultural venue.  I even got tickets in the fourth row so I could close to the action.

The Lyric Opera’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar was stunning.  The staging was clever in its use of a giant cross to serve as an entry point from offstage, a performance space, and even with its use to block the actor to recreate The Last Supper.  There were so many dancers depicting followers of Jesus Christ and they made great use of what little room they had and were dancing so intensely and close to the edge of the stage that I thought someone would fall off.  And the glitter!  90 pounds of glitter per show.  That’s a lot of glitter.

The last time a production of Jesus Christ Superstar toured in the United States was in 2006.  At that time, I was entering my freshman year of college and didn’t appreciate musicals as much as I do now.  Plus, being a freshman in college, my financial situation wouldn’t allow me to see musicals anyway.  Tat more was meant for beer and late-night Waffle House runs.

As I progressed through my collegiate career, the scope of my musical interests continued to expand.  When I wasn’t hearing new stuff while DJing at my college radio station, I went to the campus library to check out and rip CDs from various artists throughout the decades.  If I had heard of someone’s name before or liked the cover, I would check it out, listen to it, and maybe even go back to it.  This was how I was introduced to artists that I still hold near and dear to my heart.  For a kid with little money and no car to go to real record stores in Nashville, this was the best I could do.

At the campus library, I checked out a copy of the soundtrack for the 1973 film adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar.  The music was pretty cool, but I didn’t really get the overall context of the album.  It is essentially a Passion Play and I know the basics of that story, but having a visual reference would help.  So, I checked out a copy of the film.

When I watched it, I enjoyed it.  I wasn’t too huge on it at the time.  I had seen a few rock operas at that point, so I appreciated the form on some level.  While it was entertaining, I didn’t really grasp the underlying message of it.  It wouldn’t be until much later that I began to understand and appreciate the subtleties of Judas and his relationship with Jesus.

I have returned to the soundtrack a few times since then and continue to find more about it that I appreciate and fascinates me.  I imagine for many people, the appeal of the musical is based on a religious interest.  For that kind of audience, the story is about the events to led to Christ’s crucifixion and is modern way of telling that story to reaffirm one’s faith in Christ.  For me, it isn’t like that.  I’m not a really a religious or spiritual person.  However, I enjoy a good story.  And when I listen to the soundtrack or watch the film, I’m more focused on Judas’ arc and the internal conflicts he is faced with that would secure his legacy in history.  The heart of the musical is Judas and his changing relationship with Jesus.  While a lot of the characters, Jesus included, are fairly one-dimensional, it is Judas who actually is developed throughout the story.  He adds a level of narrative complexity to a story that many only see on Easter and induce feelings of guilt.

I think Jesus Christ Superstar is underappreciated because I feel that many people unfamiliar with the musical just see it as another Passion Play.  They are too focused on the Jesus aspect and thus impacts their interest in actually checking it out.  When I meet someone like that, I tell them the heart of the story is about the friendship between two men, the internal struggles one faces when tempted, and philosophical overview of Jesus as a person instead of as a religious figure.

The whole musical is philosophical and no track better represents that than “Superstar.”  As one of the final songs of the musical, Judas performs and airs out his frustrations with Jesus after he is crucified.  Even after death, Judas is still left with burning questions that this Song of God hasn’t answered for him.  Did Jesus mean to be crucified?  Was all of this intended?  Are Buddha and Muhammad the real deal like you?  Why did you decide to share this message when you could’ve reached more people in the age of mass communication?  Judas asks these questions not because he doubts his friend was the Song of God, but rather because he wants to believe in the man he followed and once called his friend.  Even after Jesus’ death, Judas struggles with his own sense of guilt and place in history.

In “Superstar,” the real heart and message of the musical comes front and center.  Judas is asking Jesus if he thinks he is what his followers and critics say he is?  It is that rhetorical approach that elevates Jesus Christ Superstar as being more than just another Passion Play.  It is a great musical that shouldn’t be avoided just because it is about Christ.  That type of cynicism is just lazy.

The version of “Superstar” I love most is the film version as performed by Carl Anderson.  Listening to the original version by Murray Head, I feel it is just ok.  Anderson adds so much emotion and intensity to the performance that it makes Judas’ crisis very believable.  I’ve heard Brandon Dixon’s portrayal as Judas in the live NBC version is great, but I haven’t check it out yet.  Seeing Judas in the Lyric Opera production, the role was performed well also.  However, Anderson’s performance continues to be my favorite.

The musical isn’t perfect in any form.  There are some lacking performances in the original cast recording and film.  I, for one, cannot stand the film rendition of “King Herod’s Song” because I don’t believe the anger and mockery the actor conveys (this song was saved for me by the performance in the Lyric Opera production that managed to make the number menacing and frightening).  However, the film remains to be my favorite because of Carl Anderson.  If you get a chance to see the movie you should.  And given the rarity of productions for this show, see it live as well.

“harper valley p.t.a.” – jeannie c. riley (1968)

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I was a senior in high school when Stephen Colbert performed at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.  His show, The Colbert Report, had premiered the year prior and was a much-needed satirical partner to balance The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’s liberal stranglehold on the fake news circuit.  Colbert, a former Daily Show alum, played the character of a conservative blowhard television pundit (based on Bill O’Reilly) who would defend George W. Bush’s presidency by misappropriating facts to fit his own narrative and bias.  The character of Stephen Colbert was created as a satirical reflection of the rise of political punditry that presented opinion as facts and furthered uninformed partisanship that has continued to divide us over a decade later.

In 2006, Stephen Colbert wasn’t a household name yet.  So, not everyone was in on the joke yet.  Colbert was invited to perform that year by Mark Smith, the current president of the White House Press Corps Association, though Smith was admittedly unfamiliar with the comedian’s work.  While comedians have spoken or performed at the dinner since 1983, Colbert’s turn was the first time that a comedian spoke truth to power in their performance.

As with his television show, Colbert performed in character.  Colbert’s character is designed to sound like he is complimenting or praising you, but each comment is actually a criticism that exposes some negative quality about that person.  Nothing personal or superficial, but rather critiques on their lack of honesty, poor character, or penchant for hypocrisy.

At that dinner, Colbert feigned mock defense of Bush’s mismanagement of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, passing tax cuts that only benefitted the rich, and the lies that led us into the war in Iraq.  President Bush wasn’t the only target that night.  Colbert lampooned John McCain, Antonin Scalia, Jesse Jackson, and others in attendance as well.  While some of these jokes were taken with good humor, Colbert’s performance was met with a chilly reception with several of Bush’s aides walking out during the speech.  Colbert looked back on the event noting that “not a lot of people laughed in the front row” and that “no one was even making eye contact with me.”  The only person who approached Colbert to praise his performance was Justice Scalia.

The press heavily analyzed Colbert’s performance.  Many outlets called Colbert rude, unfunny, and that he was a bully bombed badly.  Others praised him for not pandering to insiders by doing insider jokes.  For the first time since 1983, the media coverage of the dinner was more focused on the comedian’s speech than the president.

While there was an alleged media blackout during the live airing of Colbert’s speech, it gained widespread popularity on the Internet.  Now, the whole world could see Colbert speak “truthiness to power” as many times as they wanted.  At a time when the American people were becoming increasingly disillusioned by their leaders in Washington for engaging in needless wars based on misinformation and lies, Colbert holding a mirror to those responsible for those lies was necessary, relevant, and a reinforcement of the American people to hold our leaders accountable.  This was the First Amendment in action and it was beautiful.

Twelve years later, in 2018, Michelle Wolf finds herself in the same situation Colbert did when she decided to use the White House Correspondent’s Dinner to speak truth to power and blast the lies and hypocrisy plaguing our country coming from the Trump White House and fueled by our media outlets.  In just under twenty minutes, Wolf tore into everyone in the room.  She called out members of the Trump administration for outright lying to the American people and criticized news outlets for putting Trump in power in pursuit of profits.

Wolf did what she was supposed as a comedian.  She told jokes.  However, she used the platform to criticize the institutions responsible for dividing the American public and furthering the delegitimization of our Republic.  Wolf called out Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the current White House Press Secretary, for lying to the media and the public.  She called out Ivanka Trump for furthering her own business interests at expense of women.  She called out President Trump for his sexist comments and assault allegations.  She called out members of the press for using their outlets to profit from the chaos generated from the Trump administration.  In other words, she did everything right.

Since her speech at the dinner, Wolf has faced heavy criticism for her performance.  While there are journalists, entertainers, and fans who praise Wolf’s performance, the negative reactions are overwhelming the positive ones.  Margaret Talev, the president of the White House Press Association, said the “program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people.  Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”

Like Colbert did in 2006, Wolf was relying on her skills as a comedian to use the platform to make statements that needed to be heard.  While many may say her speech was rude, bullying, and inappropriate, I say that Wolf’s comments were relevant, necessary, and truthful.  This wasn’t just another comedian who was going make some jokes and take home a paycheck.  Wolf had something to say and her message was on point.

Naturally, the Trump administration and his supporters were outraged by Wolf’s comments.  Trump slammed the organization and tweeted that the dinner is “DEAD as we know it. This was a total disaster and an embarrassment to our great Country and all that it stands for.”  Conservative pundits hit social media and news talk shows to decry Wolf’s statements and shame liberals and Democrats for their alleged elitism.  Trump and his supporters like to pivot themselves as iconoclasts who don’t play the Washington game but rather fight for the working class and Wolf, an elitist liberal, was only there to be mean-spirited.

I am not surprised by the hypocrisy displayed by these conservative pundits and members of the Trump administration.  The Trump campaign was built on lies and hypocrisy.  Trump, during the campaign, suggested that Russia hack his opponent, advocated for the imprisonment of his opponent, threatened violence against protestors, verbally expressed he sexually assaulted women, and countless other things that illustrate that he, and his supporters, are unstable and dangerous.  For a political base that likes to deride their opponents as being “snowflakes” who can’t take a joke or the slightest bit of criticism, the conservatives are sure acting like a bunch of snowflakes over Wolf’s speech and they voted for the biggest snowflake of them all (Trump has skipped the dinner twice and is the first president to do so since Reagan was shot in 1981, but at least the Gipper called in).

I have no issues with any of the comments Wolf made during her speech.  Every comment was based on facts and were made against people in the public eye for legitimate reasons.  This was Wolf speaking truth to power and holding our political and media institutions accountable for creating the mess we currently find ourselves in.

Written by Tom T. Hall and originally record by Margie Singleton, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” became a huge hit for Jeannie C. Riley in 1968.  In the song, Riley tells the story of Mrs. Johnson who is a widowed woman with a teenage daughter.  One day, Mrs. Johnson’s daughter comes home with a note from the Harper Valley P.T.A. suggesting that Mrs. Johnson’s behavior and lifestyle is scandalous.  She’s accused of wearing miniskirts, drinking too much, and running around with men. So, what does Mrs. Johnson do?  She goes to the next P.T.A. meeting which is happening that very night.

Dressed in a miniskirt a the P.T.A. meeting, Mrs. Johnson puts everyone there on blast.  She calls out Bobby Taylor for begging her for dates, Mr. Baker for his secretary leaving town, Shirley Thompson for her gin-soaked breath, and others for engaging in the very same behaviors they accuse Mrs. Johnson of.  She declares the whole lot as hypocrites which they certainly are.

“Harper Valley P.T.A.” is a feminist anthem about calling truth to power against authority figures who don’t live by the same standards they demand from others.  Like Mrs. Johnson, Michelle Wolf put everyone on blast. Wolf even continues doing so.  When members of the press call her uncivil but don’t put the president on blast for sexist comments, they’re just living in a little Peyton Place and they’re all Washington hypocrites.

Of all the criticism I have read about Wolf’s performance, I am most disappointed by the negative reactions from members of our press.  Especially, from members of the liberal press.  While Trump’s reactions were expected, seeing Wolf by journalists has dangerous effects on our First Amendment right to free speech.  Talev’s statement that the statement is meant to unify suggests that the American people cannot hold our press to the same standards that press holds for our political leaders.  Our press demands a commitment to integrity from our leaders.  However, when a comedian is invited to give a speech to a bunch of insiders and doesn’t play ball the way they want her to, suddenly that demand for integrity goes out the window.

Wolf is right that the press helped elevate Trump to the presidency and has since been complicit in the problems our countries face due to partisan vitriol.  Wolf used her platform to hold them accountable and they just couldn’t take it.  When I read statements from journalists from NBC, MSNBC, The New York Times, and CNN reduce Wolf’s statements to uncivil insults, it is hypocrisy at its purest.  These journalists demand integrity and transparency, but refuse to give the same when there are legitimate reasons to do so.  When the journalists fail to respect the First Amendment, that is when we start to lose it. So, I congratulate Michelle Wolf for socking it to the WHCA.

“the great circus train wreck of 1918” – the residents (2017)

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Last week, I had the privilege of seeing The Residents perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  It was the loudest show I had ever seen at that venue and was a mesmerizing spectacle to watch.  This was my first time seeing the legendary multimedia avant-garde group live and it was not a show to miss.

For those unfamiliar with The Residents, their story and image outside of their music is also a point of fascination.  They are an American art collective that have been active since 1969.  They combine avant-garde music with multimedia presentations as part of their performances.  These pieces come together to create a sonic and visual aesthetic that puts the audience in a strange dreamscape.

Since the release of their first album Meet the Residents in 1974, they have developed a cult following over the last five decades.  In addition to the strange art music they compose, part of the band’s appeal concerns the mystery that surrounds the group.   The members of the group operate through a management team named the Cryptic Corporation which allows them to maintain a certain level of anonymity.  While the members of the band have changed over the years, very little is known about them.  Early in their career, rumors circulated that the band members were actually the Beatles since Meet the Residents parodied the album cover for Meet the Beatles!

In addition to hiding behind a management company designed to protect their identities, The Residents also wear elaborate costumes that simultaneously protect their identity as well as enhance the visual aspect of the show.  Most famously, the band wears a costume featuring a large eyeball helmet, top hats, and tuxedo; an image that has become iconic for the band.  Their costumes frequently vary, but they are all elaborate and the right amount of creepy.

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At the show at Old Town, they stayed true to their signature aesthetic.  The stage featured a large blue and white checkered backdrop with their iconic eyeball breaking up the pattern every so often.  There was also a large giant ball that was used as a screen to project animated videos of people reciting dreams.  On this ball, John Wayne talked about his nightmare of a disappearing ballerina, Mother Theresa shared her dream about a train wreck, a scary clown dreamt about being a cowboy, and Richard Nixon professes his dream of being a blues singer.  These unsettling animated videos appeared after three or four songs and evenly broke up the set.

I had never seen The Residents live before, but I am a little familiar with their music after being turned onto them by a college roommate.  What I expected was what I heard on records before.  I expected strange, high-pitched vocals with various rhythmic noises that sounded like they belonged in a circus (“Constantinople” for example).  However, what I got was much different but incredibly exciting.

Since I had never seen the band before, I didn’t know how faithful they were to the source material.  Based on this performance, I would say rarely.  The show I saw at Old Town was droning, industrial noise rock.  I find that music to be really cool, but this was so unexpected.  I watched each member of the band closely and was amazed by their level of skill and mastery of electronics.  The guitarist was stunning and perhaps one of the best guitarists I have ever seen live.  He style was a progressive rock vibe on par with performers like Frank Zappa or King Crimson.  The guy behind the synthesizer played these great droning pieces that really laid down a template for the show and where the others in the band could start from.

The drum, however, was my favorite.  He played on a small electric kit, but had various sequencers and programming tools that really made his sound bigger than it appeared.  He made sounds and rhythms that suggested he was supported by a larger group of musicians.  I watched him the most because I wanted to discern what sounds he contributed and how he did it.  When he hit a pad and a cymbal noise in reverse played, I was losing it.

The leader singer, an older gentleman and original member, had this great sinister vibe going on.  He would lurch around on stage and appear menacingly as he growled lyrics like Tom Waits.  And for a man his age, he sure had a set of pipes on him as demonstrated by various screams and yells that sounded like he was unleashing hell hounds.

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The costumes were excellent as well and added a surreal vibe to a darkly energetic show.  The intimidating lead singer wore a silly cow costume and fake cow nose, but it didn’t detract from his performance.  On the contrary, it elevated it.  The other members were dressed in suits with the same blue and white checkered backdrop.  However, they also wore plague doctor masks, dark lenses, and white bowler hats that added a level of black humor to the whole experience.

The show was absolutely wonderful even if I didn’t recognize most songs.  Turns out that some of the songs are preview tracks for an upcoming blues album.  The album also performed industrial covers of Elvis Presley’s ”(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,” “Six More Miles (to the Graveyard)”, and James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”

In 2017, The Residents released their 43rd studio album The Ghost of Hope.  While none of the songs from the album were performed at this show, one of the tracks has callbacks to the Mother Theresa train wreck dream.  “The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918” is a seven-minute nightmare with drawling vocals, synthesized organ music, and a droning backdrop that sounds ghostly and sinister. In the song, the lead singer is a clown that is having an emotional breakdown following the circus train wreck and reminisces about the funeral the day after the show.  While Mother Theresa’s dream varied slightly in details and delivery, the vibe is similar.  “The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918” is an uncomfortable, but entrancing listening experience that is not unlike Tom Waits’ spoken interludes like “What’s He Building?” from 1999’s Mule Variations.

The Residents are not for everyone.  It is a strange and polarizing band that is very confusing and sometimes frightening.  However, if you want an unforgettable concert experience, check them out as soon as you can.

“humble.” – kendrick lamar (2017)

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This week, Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize in their music category.  This came as a shock for two reasons.  First, Lamar is the first nonclassical or jazz performer to win the music prize.  Second, a lot of people on social media had no idea that there was a Pulitzer category for music (myself included).  Lamar’s Pulitzer win signifies a sea change for the award committee that elevates popular music, but specifically hip-hop, on the same level as classical and jazz music; two genres associated with snobbery and elitism.  However, Lamar’s win represents a lot more than impacting the award committee of a particular organization.

Lamar’s Pulitzer win is for his 2017 album DAMN.  That release, critically praised by critics and a commercial success, was snubbed at this year’s Grammy awards with the top prize going to Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic.  For years, the Recording Academy has been criticized for neglecting to recognize critically-acclaimed albums in favor of albums that have sold very well.  That isn’t always the case, but there are more examples of this scenario playing out than there are examples where it doesn’t happen.

The Pulitzer Prizes, established in 1917, praised DAMN. as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”  Lamar is an ambitious artist who started life as a black kid in the ghetto and has since struggled with this as he uses music as a platform to address key social and racial issues systemic in our society.  While the Pulitzers have honored black artists and artists with similar messages in the past, honoring a dynamic hip-hop artist that continues to redefine the genre with complexity and commercial appeal is long overdue.

While the Pulitzers deserve praise and kudos for this decision, a lot of work still must be done to fairly recognize and honor artists of color that put out magnificent work.  Artists that are disruptive in their genres are only recognized much later and long after their commercial and creative appeal has since waned.  There are active artists of color working today and struggling to get attention because of a lack of access to resources that would make them commercially viable and profitable.  Additionally, Lamar’s win isn’t just a win for hip-hop.  It is also a win for people are actively working as pop artists who are in demand and profitable.

However, relevance can be a quality that is detrimental to one’s recognition as a genius in their craft.  The Pulitzers have been praised for recognizing an artist as relevant as Lamar, but just boxing Lamar into a category based on their relevancy diminishes his accomplishments and mastery of his craft.  Merely honoring someone based on their relevancy ignores artists with less pop and commercial appeal.  This is why the Grammys have been criticized for as long as they have.  A winner-take-all culture is a by product of a society that values the democratization of culture and information where only the most popular or accessible figures are lauded.  This comment is not meant to diminish Lamar’s work on DAMN. because it is a rich piece of art.  However, the virtue of him being a popular artist and winning such an award puts him at the center of this discussion.

While many praise the Pulitzers for this decision, there is also some healthy criticism as well.  Primarily, critics of this decision feel that this award serves as a platform that can boost the career of someone less commercially viable and accessible.  The purpose of awards like this are meant to be based on merit as opposed to sales and popularity.  Though, you can have artists that fit into both categories of crafting something worthy of merit that also sells well.  The notion that we only award less commercially established artists is almost as absurd as only awarding artists that have sold a ton of albums.

Much of the debate surrounding Lamar’s win is very similar to the debate surrounding Bob Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature.  In Dylan’s case, many critics felt that Dylan’s work was misunderstood or mischaracterized as being literature.  The question of whether or not song lyrics, outside a musical context, could be considered literature was hotly debated by critics and supporters of Dylan’s Nobel win.

However, Dylan’s win was also criticized for the same reason as Lamar’s Pulitzer win.  Should Dylan’s Nobel Prize have gone to someone not as established as Dylan thus providing them a platform to be recognized and see a boost in their appeal and sales?  Again, this doesn’t serve the notion that awards are supposed to be based on merit.  However, do people conflate the concepts of commercial appeal and artistic merit?  Are sales a metric of an artist that is a master of their craft?  Is something critically praised relevant if it doesn’t sell well?  These questions are objective and open to discussion and debate.  However, the idea that a commercially successful artist cannot also be a genius is false and without merit.  And the concept of “relevancy” is an intellectually limiting term designed to fit a complex figure into a small categorical box which can be dismissive of established artists.

The first single from DAMN., “Humble” (stylized as “HUMBLE.”) became Lamar’s first as a lead artist and one three Grammy awards; “Best Rap Performance,” “Best Rap Song,” and “Best Music Video”).  Not the strongest track on DAMN., it is a catchy song that is a statement about Lamar’s inner conflicts between his past life and current success.  The music video is brilliant and highly stylized as Lamar is dressed like the pope and plays out scenes resembling Leonard da Vinci’s The Last Supper.  The video represents irony and is deeply symbolic reinforcing the powerful lyrics of the track.

DAMN. is a hip-hop milestone worthy of praise.  Lamar is a genius and master of his craft who has continued to create stunning music (his latest work for the soundtrack for Black Panther illustrates his continued success).  While his Pulitzer win is well-deserved, it also represents the idea that we still have a long way to go in recognizing artists of color.  Healthy debate regarding the merit of Lamar’s win is fine, but let’s get distracted with vague concepts of relevancy or the democratization of our culture.  Regardless if an artist is popular and commercially successfully, we should be honoring works on their own merit.  Blindly awarding people based on lack of popularity diminishes the work of artists who have worked hard to achieve they success they have.  And exclusively relying on relevancy to determine value also diminishes the ongoing work many established artists continue to create.

Whether an artist is successful or popular should be wholly unimportant when breaking down a work of art.  We have a long way to go regarding this inclusivity in our awards, but democratizing the process does no one any good.  I know it can appear that we tend to only award a handful artists and when someone wins something then they win everything else.  The solution, however, is not to exclusively adhere to the antithesis of that and ignore established artists in favor of those with less commercial appeal.  It is quite reactionary.  Good art is good art is good art.  Regardless of where it comes from.