“radio free europe (hib-tone version)” – r.e.m. (1981)

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Music is a constant in my life.  Not only do I listen to it for pleasure, but it also permeates through my life in other areas.  My hobbies are also musical as well.  I volunteer for two non-profits that are focused one music; one being a community radio station and the other a music school.  I even take classes at the music school where I volunteer.  Friends and I will even meet at a local pub to discuss albums for fun.  Music is a big part of my life and identity.

However, there is just so much music out there.  I feel like I know quite a bit about it until I meet someone else who, by comparison, is a complete encyclopedia.  When I was younger, I always found that kind of intimidating and a subject of awe for me.  I wanted to be the person with all this vast knowledge.  They just seemed cool because they had awareness, even access, to sounds that were cooler than anything I had ever known.

Over the years, my musical knowledge has expanded and changed.  There are bands I once listened to non-stop that I haven’t revisited in years and there are genres I now love that I previously never would have thought I would ever get into.  My tastes and interests are in flux.  Bands or albums that were once meaningless to me will find significance later on.  It just happens.

R.E.M. is one of those bands.  For nearly four decades, R.E.M. has been one of the most inspirational and famous bands to come out of the early 1980s alternative music scene.  Though they broke up in 2011, they’ve outlived most of their contemporaries from that era.  They’re signature sound is instantly recognizable.  They are band that has our culture in significant ways.  However, for years, I just couldn’t give a shit.

I was born in the 1980s and I don’t own a single R.E.M. release.  I feel like everyone else who was born in the 1980s has at least one R.E.M. album or compilation in their collection.  But, not me.  And especially considering that I have a deep appreciation for early 1980s alternative rock, it might even sound stranger that I just never really cared about R.E.M.  Sure, I knew some of their most recognizable songs.  And I even liked some of them.  But whenever I considered R.E.M. as a whole, I’ve always just thought they were just OK.

That started to change recently.  I’ve been listening to more R.E.M.  It began a few months back when I rewatched Man on the Moon, Miloš Forman’s 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic with Jim Carrey playing the polarizing comedic figure.  I remember when that film came out.  I saw it a few years after it was released and I remembered enjoying it.  However, after seeing it listed on HBO, I thought I would rewatch it to see if it held up.

R.E.M. wrote the soundtrack for the album and recorded original music for it.  The title for the film, however, came from a song of the same name that was released on their 1992 studio album Automatic for the People.  That song, “Man on the Moon,” was all over the promotional material as it played in the trailer and on television commercial spots. It made sense to use it.
The soundtrack also featured a bunch of instrumental tracks that scored the film.  However, the other memorable song on the album besides the inclusion of “Man on the Moon” was an original soundtrack contribution called “The Great Beyond.”  The music video featured the band with footage of Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman, but the video was later edited to include archival footage of the real Andy Kaufman instead of Carrey’s performance.  Upon rewatching that film, I listened “The Great Beyond” a lot.  I didn’t remember the song when it came out, but I loved listening to it now.

A few months later, R.E.M. entered my life in a more direct way.  For the last few years, I had listened to a podcast called R U Talkin’ U2 2 Me?  The podcast was hosted by Scott Aukerman (of Comedy Bang Bang) and Adam Scott (of Parks & Recreation).  The premise of the podcast was that these two comedians who were lifelong fans of the band U2 would go through each of the band’s albums in-depth that were released at that point.  Billed as an “encyclopedic compendium of all things U2,” the podcast is just two guys bullshitting and joking for an hour before breaking down their thoughts on an album track by track.  I absolutely loved it because it was incredibly funny and seemingly random.  Other U2 fans, according to the fan message boards I frequented, hated it because of all the inane bullshit.  They just didn’t get.

The podcast got bigger than Aukerman or Scott ever anticipated.  U2 appeared on an episode and conducted interviews.  And the podcast was the first place you could have an exclusive listen of their 2017 studio album Songs of Experience.  So, where do you go from there?

A few weeks ago, I see that the RSS feed for the podcast changed.  Everything changed.  The logo, description, and even the title was different.  Now, it was R.E.M.’s turn to get the Aukerman and Scott treatment.

R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME? Is setting out to do for R.E.M. what the original podcast did for U2.  As with U2, Aukerman and Scott were lifelong fans of R.E.M. and needed something to do since they were all caught up with U2’s discography.

When the podcast premiered, I wasn’t too enthusiastic.  I told myself I would give it a listen when I had some downtime at work.  I eventually did listen and the format is exactly the same as their U2 podcast.  Like before, the goal was to break down each album in the band’s discography and provide their thoughts.  They even reuse skits and gags that made the U2 podcast a lot of fun.  For all intents and purposes, it was the same.

Though I wasn’t a fan of R.E.M. or that enthusiast about the podcast update, I listened to the first few episodes.  I thoroughly enjoyed all the memorable jokes and bits from before. It all felt incredibly familiar to me.  The new aspect would be the album breakdown.  Besides a few of their biggest songs, I didn’t know a lot about the band’s music.

When Aukerman and Scott go through the album, they play segments from songs (can’t play too much due to fair use laws) and then talk about it.  For someone completely unfamiliar with most of these songs, not hearing the entire song doesn’t give me a complete context but I hear enough to get the point.  The hosts then share their thoughts on when they first heard these songs and how things have changed for them in 2018.

I always enjoyed that discussion on the U2 podcast.  Primarily because I knew the song’s context.  With R.E.M., I have to trust the hosts more than I have before and really rely on their levels of enthusiasm.  I have found, since listening, their critiques are honest and forthright and when they hear something they really enjoy, I love the enthusiasm they convey for the songs.  They’re excited and it gets me excited.  I wanna know what all the fuss is about.

Just recently, I listened to my first R.E.M. album in its entirety.  The album discussion group I participate in every other week is meeting this weekend to discuss their 1983 debut studio album Murmur.  Prior to this, I have never listened to an R.E.M. album in its entirety.  I will share my thoughts about the record and its signature blend of jangly guitar and indecipherable lyrics with the rest of the group during the meetup.  However, my introduction to R.E.M. continues as I listen to more episodes of the podcast.

The opening track on Murmur is “Radio Free Europe.”  That is one of their songs I had known previously and did enjoy.  However, listening to the podcast, I learned that it was a rerecording done for I.R.S. Records.  Two years prior, in 1981, R.E.M. recorded a rougher and faster version for the short-lived label Hib-Tone as their first official single.

I really love the original version of “Radio Free Europe” because it is so rough.  It is a demo that is good enough for an actual record.  That really spoke to me.  Usually, demos are poorly done but show off enough of the band for you to get the point.  Demos aren’t usually polished and fully realized.  While the I.R.S. version is better produced and more polished, the Hib-Tone original really speaks to the band’s musicianship.  If they could record a demo as good as this, I feel that signifies they truly have something special.

I recently listened to the podcast episode on their third album Fables of the Reconstruction and I was impressed with the different direction they took for their third album which I have come to learn is a polarizing record in their discography and not one of their more well-known.  Still, Murmur is the only full album I have listened to.  Based on how much of the podcast I’ve covered, I’m still behind on properly listening to Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction.  While I have really enjoyed what I have heard so far, I’m still not calling myself an R.E.M. convert yet.  I’m not sold on them quite yet, but still curious enough to keep exploring.  While this a is a band that everyone else my age or in my circles loves, I’m a little behind. However, I’m giving it an honest try because I like being open to new things and expanding, or even changing, my music habits and tastes.

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“grazing in the grass” – hugh masekela (1968)

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Today is the spring equinox, colloquially known as the first day of spring, in this part of the world.  Though our calendar officially recognizes the seasonal change, it sure doesn’t feel like it in Chicago.  Currently, it is hovering around freezing and expected to snow later in the week.  To call this spring, especially after such long winters in Chicago, it can be seen as some cruel joke for some, but I don’t mind it.  Spring will come.

March can be such a strange month for weather.  One day, it can be bright, sunny, and warm enough to leave the jacket at home.  The next day, you’re bundled up in your scarf, hat, and mittens.  I was standing on the train platform this morning during my morning commute thinking about the lovely weather we had this weekend.

It was St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago which, depending on the area, can be a chaotic mess.  A friend of mine and I chose to head out of the city to see Asian orchid flower displays at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  There were lovely displays of orchids and all their bright, shimmering glory with warm welcoming hues of purple and yellow and red.  The flowers were displayed along the walls with a quiet water fixture in the middle.  It was incredibly calming and peaceful.

It was also very sunny out and warmer than had been during the week.  Last St. Patrick’s Day, it was miserably cold.  I remember standing in a courtyard at the base of Trump Tower looking at the river and waiting for it to turn green.  It wasn’t the coldest day of winter, but it was sure one of the coldest days.  SO much trouble to stand amongst drunk suburbanites and college students waiting to see a dirty river change colors.  As festive as I can be, I wanted no part of it this year.

Not only were the orchid displays gorgeous, it was also a really lovely day.  The sun was out and the temperature has risen enough to where I could comfortably walk around without my jacket.  And it kept getting nicer as the day progressed.  Later that day, I was sitting on a Metra platform, reading a book and my bare arms were exposed.  I marveled at how warm and inviting everything felt.  It only got better the next day with more sun and even warmer temperatures.  One of my purest joys in life is the first day I can comfortably wear short sleeves all day.  I got to experience that on Sunday and that is when I’m officially over winter.  Just a little taste of spring and I have to have it all.

Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet.  I was reminded just how unpredictably March in Chicago can be as I was shivering on the train platform.  I may not have actually been that cold.  It may have been an unconscious reaction considering the delightful weather I just experienced over the weekend.  Like an addict going cold turkey, I was shaking all over.  I need another hit of that spring awakening.

As I wait for Chicago to make up its mind and fully commit to spring, I ease the transition by listening to music that, for me, evokes fun in the sun.  Not quite the fun you find when its time to hit the beach, but the kind of fun where you can walk through parks without splashing around in dirty slush or slipping on the sidewalks.  I’m talking about the fun in the sun where you can go for a run, practice for your upcoming softball league, or maybe even grab a delicious treat from any of the fro-yo shops that are beginning to bloom.

Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass” is the perfect song for such an occasion.  “Grazing in the Grass” was composed by Philemon Hou and recorded by Masekela in 1968.  Most people are more familiar with the 1969 cover by the Friends of Distinction with the added lyrics, but Masekela’s original evokes a more calm and casual feeling.

The song was inspired by “Mr. Bull No. 5,” a novelty record that Masekela had heard in Zambia earlier.  In fact, “Grazing in the Grass” almost wasn’t released.  Masekela was working on his 1968 The Promise of a Future, but was short by three minutes.  At the record company’ suggestion, Masekela recorded the song along with Philemon Hou, also in the studio, who wrote a new melody.

Masekela’s signature trumpet sound on the track, just like spring, is gorgeous and not overbearing.  I just feel really good listening to it because it is simultaneously calming and motivating.  It makes me want to get out, move, and just enjoy the world around me.  This year, Masekela’s recordings was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Sadly, Masekela passed away earlier this year.  As one of South Africa’s best musicians, he championed anti-apartheid sentiments in his compositions.  Much of his work closely reflected his experiences growing up in segregated townships.  During the 1950s and 1960s in South Africa, Masekela faced extreme racism and exploitation under apartheid.  He managed to channel this into his revolutionary music that protested government-mandated violence and slavery.

While “Grazing in the Grass” may not have the same political furor as “Bring Him Back Home” or “Soweto Blues,” the song is powerful in its own right.  The power the song has comes from it evoking happiness and peace.  Amidst all the suffering and violence black South Africans faced from their oppressors, there was still a desire and yearning for joy.  Walking peacefully through the grass may not seem a revolutionary act to most people, but the drive to live a life where you can do what you please is one.

I understand that bracing one’s self against Chicago winters and institutionalized slavery are not the same things. However, my experience with this track is different than the context with which it was composed and recorded.  Back then, it is a yearning and declaration for one’s own sense of peace from oppression.  For me, right now, it means happiness on a smaller scale.  In the end, its all happiness and, baby, I can dig it.

“ray of light” – madonna (1998)

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A few weeks ago, I celebrated the seventh anniversary of my move to Chicago.  A lot has happened since I pulled up to my Rogers Park apartment in a U-Haul the week after the city experienced the legendary “Snowpacalypse” of 2011.  I met a lot of people and befriended a few.  I went in and out of relationships, friendships, and places of employment.  I started several new hobbies while even continuing some of them.  My experiences and encounters shaped my outlook and overall being.  Sometimes in major ways and other times with subtlety.  Still, my life today is not the same as it was several years ago or even last year.

The longer you live in one place, the more memories you build.  These memories become part of the scenery.  You walk by a particular spot and see a flash of a past life that seems so long ago, but was still instrumental in the development of your current state of being.  These memories can be good or bad, but they are yours.  You can allow them to haunt you or you can control them.

I’ve been told the best way to deal with unpleasant memories associated with a particular geographical spot is to create new memories there.  I get that and I believe it.  If some place made you uncomfortable before, go there and do something so significant that its meaning evolves and you no longer feel anxiety or doubt.  It sounds hard, but it is possible.

I mention this because I’ve gotten pretty good at reclaiming places in the city that were once associated with positive memories before I soured on them.  This process took time.  And that was ok because these uncomfortable reminders were fairly infrequent.  With geographical spaces, I can build paths or lives around them that satisfy me.  With places that were uncomfortable for me, I would only go there if it was absolutely necessary to fulfill or achieve something relevant to my current life.  Once that happened, things were fine and I reclaimed something that was temporarily lost.

The same hardly ever works when it comes to people because of the potential of chance encounters.  Chicago is a big city, but it can be small in a lot of ways.  You’re bound to run into someone you know walking these streets.  These can be friendly faces around your own neighborhood or faces of people that you haven’t seen in so long that is feels like it has been a lifetime since you’ve seen them.  Whether these chance encounter are pleasant or not entirely depends on your associated memories with them.  However, unlike buildings, reclaiming something lost with a person is a lot harder.

A week or so ago, I had a couple of days that really threw me off balance.  Specifically, I had three chance encounters with people from my past all within a span of a few days.  My memories associated with these people are quite negative with no chance of fixing what is broken between us.  They are individuals from my past I have no interest ever dealing with again let alone actually seeing.  It had been several years since I had seen any of them, so to come face to face with all three within one week was difficult to handle.  I felt my stride break for a few days and that was difficult to deal with being someone who is very focused on looking ahead.

I’m very open to advice and consultations from people I care about in my life.  Both a close friend and a family member have, in the past and recently, told me to stop, breathe, take in my surroundings, and consider what the universe is trying to tell me.  What they mean by this is that there could be a signal or a pattern of signals that is attempting to guide me in a particular direction.  Where that leads to, I don’t know.  But the advice is meant to suggest that I cut out all the distractions that keep me from where I need to be.

For a few days after those encounters, I spent time thinking about what the universe was telling me.  I was sure I was being tested.  At first, I was thinking that the universe was trying to rub my past failures and mistakes in my face.  Why else would I see the three people I have at the top of my list of my “Do Not Want” list all within one week?  It seemed like a cruel joke.  I could see myself stumbling upon them individually over a much longer span of time, but within a few days was ridiculous.

I consulted with a few friends on the matter.  One told me it was just a coincidence and that I shouldn’t think about it.  Another told me that they are just reminders that those people aren’t worth thinking about.  Someone else told me it could be a reminder of how far I’ve come along and how better my life is for it.  When you think about matters of existentialism, demanding a clear answer is an exhausting and useless gesture.  And that was what happened.  I was exhausted and I needed a do over for the next weekend.

This past weekend, I got the do over I was looking for.  I did fun things with people I enjoy.  I took some personal time to be alone and enjoy myself and the life I have built for myself.  This came in the form of cooking a fancy meal and seeing a midnight movie at my favorite theater.

On Saturday, I had a nice blend of new and familiar.  I participated in early primary voting before going to the gym.  That afternoon, I went to the library to participate in a feminist book club meeting where I met a whole group of new people and engaged in thought-provoking and engaging dialogue.  That evening, I met with close friends to participate in a breakout room game.  I had never done one before and while many are zombie-themed, this one was an 80s dance party.  It was campy and fun and I enjoyed running around interacting with relics from the Reagan era.

On Sunday, I participated in a charity stair climbing event.   It was my fourth year in a row where I’ve raised funds and committed myself to climb a lot of stairs to beat lung cancer.  I climbed 180 stories in under 34 minutes which was a personal best.  I was really proud of that.  A friend came to the event to support me and she even made a sign to encourage me.  The sign had references to U2 (a band I love) and The Simpsons (a show I love) and I was so happy that I collapsed onto the floor with laughter.  After the stair climb, we ate fried chicken, talked with friends at a music discussion group, and I closed the evening out with cooking and reading.

It was an exceptional weekend on its own, but it really made up for last week.  I forget that I am surrounded by people who love and care about me.  And when I have weekends like this, I always surprised to be reminder of this.  I shouldn’t have to be reminded.  I should just know this.  Knowing this would be helpful when I have experiences where I am face to face with negativity from past in the form of an old boss or ex-girlfriend.  They don’t matter now and, therefore, shouldn’t cause me to feel doubt or anxiety.  Whether the universe was testing me or trying to show me how far I’ve come, I don’t know.  What I do know is that I need to stay grounded and enjoy what is relevant around me that has my best interest in mind.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Madonna lately.  I don’t know why, but I just have.  During my charity stair climb, my playlist was a Madonna compilation.  As I’ve been listening to her, I have really gravitated towards her songs that promote positivity, empowerment, and individuality.  While she has a lot of songs that do that, the one that feels most relevant to me right now is “Ray of Light.”

“Ray of Light” was the second single from Madonna’s seventh studio album released under the same name.  Released in 1998, Madonna had gone through a lot of changes prior to recording.  She gave birth to her daughter Lourdes, started developing a religious identity studying Eastern mysticism and Kabbalah, and played the lead in the 1996 film Evita based on the musical.  The Material Girl of the 1980s was growing into something more individual and realized in the 1990s.

The song deals with Madonna’s changing identities over the years.  Deeply personal throughs and experiences, such as becoming a mother, were changing her outlook and music.  While she reigned supreme over the charts with anthemic dance-floor songs, she was now transitioning to a form of electronic music that emphasized freedom of self.

Madonna repeats that she feels like she just got home throughout the song.  Quicker than ray of light, she is a zephyr in the sky that has a little piece of Heaven until Earth becomes one.  That may sound like a lot of 90s new age hyperbole, but there is a lot of meaning in the significance.   Perhaps, in 1998, people didn’t expect much lyrical depth form Madonna, but the song signifies that Madonna had matured and attempting to find a balance in her life.  She knows the kind of person she is and wants to be.  This is a motivation to seek out what she wants and needs in a life full of distractions and dead ends.

I was ten when this song came out.  At that age, I thought the music video was incredibly cool and I found the song very danceable.  At that time, I didn’t have the ability or experience to relate with what Madonna was saying.  At 30, I am in the process of understanding.  I can’t say that I completely understand because I’m still trying to find my own balance in the universe.  Madonna found it and sings her answer in “Ray of Light.”  While there will be times of discomfort that are designed to keep me from where I need to go, I must balance that with knowing I’m more than what those things attempt to define me as.  I’m closer to feeling like I just got home now than I ever did back then.

“travelin’ thru'” – dolly parton (2005)

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The 90th annual Academy Awards were held this past weekend.  Organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to celebrate “excellence in cinematic achievements,” the Academy Awards (affectionately and commonly referred to as the Oscars) is a star-studded spectacle.  It is where you can see Hollywood’s hottest stars shine bright, see montages and tributes that remind us why we love the movies, and be thoroughly entertained by the host and the character they bring to the ceremony.

This year’s Oscars ceremony had a message for the world.  2017 went down as a year where toxic men in Hollywood were exposed and town down from power after decades of abusing a system that preyed upon young actresses.  Brave women came forward and shared their personal stories of harassment and sexual assault.  Almost daily, it seemed that a recognized male figure faced allegations.  While men like Aziz Ansari were put on blast and added nuance to the dialogue on sexual assault (in this case, consent must be enthusiastic), the real victories were won against monstrous and vile men like Harvey Weinstein whose career rightfully ended and is currently facing possible arrest for his decades of abuse and crimes.

Women rising up and taking their rightful place in the seats of power also extended by Hollywood.  The #metoo movement spread like wildfire all over our social media feeds.  Everyday people, unaware of or blind to systemic sexual and gender issues, were finally seeing that the victims of sexual assault extend beyond those walking the red carpet.  These victims are also our mothers, sisters, neighbors, daughters, and friends.

Movies are a cultural institution that provide us a window into the lives of people we may not know.  We look to them for answers or understanding as they are often a lens into a life beyond our own.  They can elevate the voices of marginalized people.  There is power to movies.  Hollywood knows this and this theme was inherent in this year’s Oscars ceremony.  However, there was a good chance you were disappointed.

The Oscars have become increasingly contentious over the years.  And it depends on how you watch them.  For some, the Oscars, like other Hollywood awards shows, are just meant for pure entertainment.  These kinds of people understand that countless timeless classics and key cinematic figures were never awarded an Oscar and that the whole industry of award shows is superficial at best.  They know that the Academy tends to lean conservative and, with few exceptions, can be fairly predictable.

For others, winning an Oscar is a form of validation and that being awarded the iconic golden statuette is important in that it raises awareness and visibility for the winner.  And it makes it even more important that the Academy recognizes marginalized groups.  In recent years, the Oscars have been accused of ignoring cinematic contributions from people of color with #OscarsSoWhite trending across all the social media platforms. Since the rise of #OscarsSoWhite campaigns, the Academy, as well as other award governing bodies, have made comments that they will strive to be more inclusive.

While #OscarsSoWhite has driven the dialogue over the last few years, this year it was the #metoo movement that was the focus of the ceremony.  Regarding the presenters, the Oscars included more women and those women spoke passionately about the struggle of women in the movie industry and women all over the world.  Notably, Jodie Foster and Jennifer Lawrence presented the award for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role” after Casey Affleck dropped out following allegations of sexual misconduct (note that it is tradition for previous year’s winner from the opposite gender category to present).  Salma Hayek Pinault, Ashley Judd, and Annabella Sciorra presented a short presentation highlighting the #metoo and Time’s Up movement while celebrating the need for diversity in film.  Even Hollywood legends Helen Mirren and Jane Fonda, who both have witness many changes and controversies over the decades-long careers, stood up against toxic men in Hollywood during their presentations.  The message was clear and we were all behind them.

Like every previous Oscars ceremony, social media blows up with criticisms about the ceremony and how they failed to recognize enough women or people of color.  And expectations were for the Academy to deliver.  When Emma Stone presented the award for “Best Director,” she introduced the nominees as “these four men and Great Gerwig.”  Quite a powerful statement and aligned with the overall theme of the night.  However, I remember thinking, If Gerwig doesn’t win then Stone’s comment will really be awkward (Spoiler: Gerwig didn’t win).  It was moments like that that fueled the disappointment and criticisms many people had.  And rightfully so, but the Oscars have historically been disappointing on the front.

However, the Oscars weren’t completely dominated by white men.  This year, despite the lack of women and people of color winning overall, was a fairly diverse year compared to previous Oscar ceremonies.  Jordan Peele became the first African-American to win the award for “Best Original Screenplay,” Guillermo del Toro became the third Mexican to win “Best Director” (while nabbing his first Oscar), Daniela Vega became the first transgender actor to present that Oscars (her film A Fantastic Woman won for “Best Foreign Language Film”  which was also Chile’s first win and the film was incredibly fantastic), and Robert Lopez became the first person to earn an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) twice.

While the Oscars this year were predictable as they always have been, those are significant achievements.  Sure, it doesn’t completely fix the lack of diversity inherent in the Academy overall.  While diversity and inclusion are absolutely important things, I don’t think it should come to any surprise that the Oscars failed to deliver on people’s expectations in a year where women and people of color were declaring that “Time’s Up.”

For this blog, I went through all winners of “Best Original Song” from previous Oscar years.  There are a lot of great songs that have over the years.  Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from ‘Shaft’” comes to mind.  And how can you forget “Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland?  So many great songs rightfully awarded for their merit.  However, there are a lot of deserving songs that should’ve won but were overlooked.

When I was going through nominees that didn’t win, I saw a lot of great tunes.  However, I specifically wanted to find one that not only I enjoyed thoroughly and thought deserved to win, but something that was timely.  I couldn’t find a song that better fit that criteria than “Travelin’ Thru” by Dolly Parton.

“Travelin’ Thru” was recorded by Parton for the 2005 film Transamerica starring Felicity Huffman and Kevin Zegers.  Directed by Duncan Tucker (his only feature-length film to date), Transamerica is the story of a preoperative transgender woman (Huffman) who learns that she fathered a son (Zegers) who is a teenage runaway living on the streets of New York City.  The film earned Huffman a nomination for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role” and Parton a nomination for “Best Original Song.”

Transamerica¸ while a decent but not movie, was certainly ahead of its time.  While Oscar was buzzing about homosexuality in film that year (Brokeback Mountain and Capote being big contenders that year), Transamerica was an overlooked film.  While 2005 doesn’t seem like a long time ago, it was still a time where having men kiss on film was controversial.  So, it is no wonder why a film about a transgender person wouldn’t garner more attention.  In 2018, a film like Transamerica would get the support it deserves for the purpose of increasing visibility of transgender issues and elevating them in Hollywood.  When viewed through the lens of 2018, Transamerica isn’t a perfect example of mainstream transgender cinema though.  Huffman herself isn’t transgender.  However, in 2005, that movie was bold on its own merit in that time.  And despite that, it is a footnote of aughts cinema.

Though the movie itself has been relatively forgotten, Parton’s soundtrack contribution is legendary.  Not only did “Travelin’ Thru” deserve the Oscar that year and stands out as one of the best songs to be nominated but not win, but it is one of the best songs in Oscar history.  Even Parton’s performance for the ceremony is legendary.

“Travelin’ Thru” is a song about embracing the journey despite not knowing where it will take you.  In the song, Parton sings about being a puzzle and figuring out how all the pieces fit.  She isn’t sure of where she’s going or where’s she been, but she knows she has a purpose in life and she’ll do anything to answer the questions burning inside of her.  It is a remarkably powerful song with an optimistic message.

I fully support the advocates behind the #metoo and Time’s Up movements.  The Oscars have 90 years of history and tradition that has solidified into an institution that can, for the most part, lack inclusivity and ignore social issues around us.  The Academy’s mission is to recognize excellence in cinematic achievements.  The issue is that marginalized people need the opportunity to create excellence in the first place.  And piece by piece, they’ll get there and completely change the face of the Oscars.  Their work is not in vain and they’ll get there as they are stumblin’, tumblin’, wonderin’, as they’re travelin’ thru.