The Song of the Election: “Pastime Paradise”


In a recent poll by the American Psychological Association, more than half of Americans say the 2016 election “is a very or somewhat significant” source of stress in their lives. You can include me in that group. The prospect of a President Trump has terrified me to the point where I turn into Baby Jane Hudson when I read Politico – every time I think about something nice, they remind me of bad things.

The APA’s tips on how to deal with election stress? Consume less media. Avoid talking about it. Do volunteer work. Try to have a more “balanced perspective.” I know I’m not doing any of those things from now until Tuesday, so I’ve decided to find a song that makes me feel better, that I can play on a loop until the fate of the world is sealed.

This was hard. Election stress isn’t the kind of thing I want to minimize or push away. So I went on a search for clarity through song, looking for an easily digestible, non-partisan explanation of how in god’s name we got here. When I couldn’t find a song called “America Hates Women,” I turned to the album that tends to have the answers to most things – Stevie Wonder’s monumental 1976 double LP, Songs in the Key of Life.

“Pastime Paradise” has a spiritual quality that goes beyond mere political protest. Built almost entirely of synthesized strings and light percussion, it floats into your eardrums like a Ghost of Election Day Future, warning us of the dangers of nostalgia. The lyrics are full of foreboding, yet Wonder cuts through the mood with a voice so pure, you can see to the bottom.

They’ve been spending most their lives
Living in a pastime paradise
They’ve been wasting most their time
Glorifying days long gone behind



Wonder’s diagnosis of our country’s malady is 40 years old, but it rings true as ever: When we’re unhappy with the present, when the turmoil of our lives compounds with the turmoil on the news, it’s very tempting to retreat to our own private island of memory. A place where we can personally curate what to remember and what to ignore. A paradise where we are all-powerful. It’s when we see this paradise as truth that everything goes to hell.

On the bridge, Wonder lists the side effects of electing leaders who think it’s possible to not only live in the past, but to recreate a twisted and distorted past that only exists in the minds of one demographic. It’s a cheat sheet for the true meaning of “Make America Great Again”:

Race Relations
Confirmation to the evils of the world

This razor-sharp sociology lesson alone would make “Pastime Paradise” a candidate for the Song of the Election. But Stevie Wonder is not a pessimist. After showing us the path to darkness, he turns his face to the sun, dreaming about the good things that can happen when we look toward the future instead. Acclamation. Salvation. Stimulation. Peace. As the song nears its climax, and Christian and Hare Krishna choirs add even more gravitas to the melody, Wonder makes a plea. And it’s here, in this moment, where my stress turns to confidence.

Let’s start living our lives
Living for the future paradise

On November 8, we can reject the lie that America was better when it was controlled by white men.  And when the day is done, our country will speak two words out loud for the first time. Two words that prove we’re closer to a future paradise for all: Madam President.

Sam & Don


If you read my post yesterday, you massive global audience you, you know I’ve had the season premiere of Mad Men on my mind. The show’s exploration of mid-life crises is reaching new peaks of symbolic grandeur, and new depths of self-absorbed nihilism (e.g. an ad executive, wealthy from birth, complaining that life is nothing but a string of disappointments). With every new wincing cigarette pull from Don Draper, he’s seemingly one step closer to oblivion.

So when the Sam Cooke song “Smoke Rings” came on during my drive to work this morning, it felt like a cosmic pop culture connection – over a crooner-friendly, French horn-happy blues, Cooke ruminates about the product of his exhalations, like Draper staring into space on his Hawaiian vacation. “Please take me above with you,” Cooke pleads in the final refrain. It’s a gorgeously depressing idea, one that begs to play under the closing credits of this season of Mad Men. Start practicing that wince, and check it out here:

What I Got For Christmas

Like I learned from Santa Claus: The Movie, Santa Claus is some Dutch guy who gets all magical for some reason I don’t remember. Dudley Moore was there, and there was a homeless kid maybe? OK, it’s been a while since I saw Santa Claus: The Movie. And it’s something that Santa has forgiven me for, because he brought me some amazing shit this year – shit I specifically told my wife I wanted. Isn’t that amazing?

886979214927Sam Cooke – The Man Who Invented Soul

Speaking of getting all magical, Sam Cooke made music that sounded like it came straight from heaven. With a voice effortless in its beauty, lyrics that treat true love like it’s oxygen, and arrangements that blend gospel, pop, vocal jazz and calypso with startling efficiency, Cooke’s catalog is a sonic argument for the innate goodness of human beings. After years of compiling random collections of his work, my CD collection has finally been blessed with the big kahuna – this accurately titled, four-disc retrospective, a desert island item for sure

a7b2521a515dc36ea56d181cada01ce0a27bbbb4James Brown – Star Time

The Man Who Invented Soul would’ve been enough to sustain me through 2013. (What’s that, food? You think I need your vitamins? Fuck you!) So upon receiving this, yet another four-disc box set of one of the 20th century’s otherworldly talents, I understood what it feels like to be a spoiled bitch. And to paraphrase the Godfather of Soul himself – the man whose grooves were so combustible they’d inspire Mitt Romney to put down his milk and get on up – it feels good.

Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic GospelsElaine Pagels – The Gnostic Gospels

Once you say that a book contains the word of God, you’re setting yourself up for some problems down the road. Like, say, if ancient texts were discovered that were written around the same time as your God book, using similar source material. And those texts directly contradicted aspects of your God book, which you’ve been using to guilt-trip people for centuries – such as your claim that Jesus had no interest in gettin’ it on. Pagels’ book is the most renowned study of these “heretic” gospels, and the bitter Catholic school kid in me can’t wait to absorb it.


3788568165_b926c4acfeRichard Russo – That Old Cape Magic

You don’t dive into a Richard Russo novel; you slip into one, like an old sweater that provides comfort beyond its fabric. Sure, his protagonists are slightly different versions of the same soft-spoken middle-aged guy who needs to come to terms with his past. But his lazy suburban worlds are so realistically rendered, and his prose is so casually profound, I’m quite sure I don’t care. That Old Cape Magic might not have the narrative heft of Empire Falls or Bridge of Sighs, but merely an echo of those wonders will suit me just fine.


mystery_train_5th_edGreil Marcus – Mystery Train

I claim to be a critic of music. Whose favorite songwriter of all time is Randy Newman. And I have never read this, the Citizen Kane (or, I guess Vertigo now?) of rock criticism, which follows the stories of several artists (including my beloved Randy) to make grand comparisons between rock n’ roll and Herman Melville. Shameful.