The Song of the Election (revised): “Give the People What They Want”

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Around 1 a.m. on election night, NBC News cut to the Javits Center, the glass-ceilinged site of the Clinton campaign’s planned celebration. And there amongst the throng of stunned supporters was Stevie Wonder, leaning against a railing, looking tired and perplexed. After so many hours wiping tears and swallowing bile, it was the appropriate capstone to my evening.

Four days earlier, I had written about how Wonder’s classic 1976 song “Pastime Paradise” was the only thing keeping my election stress at bay. An all-too-relevant warning about the dangers of nostalgia, delivered in the artist’s clarion call of a voice, it was the perfect delineation of America’s crisis. Would we be driven by fear, or by hope?

Well, more of us were driven by hope, but fear still won. More than 60 million Americans voted for a man whose entire platform fit on a hat. Donald Trump promised to bring back the steel industry, with no plan. He promised to fix the inner cities, with no plan. He claimed to love women more than anyone, even though we all heard his detailed plan for sexually assaulting them.

So forgive me if my new Song of the Election takes an especially bitter view of what we all value as humans. “Give the People What They Want” was written by Ray Davies as a commentary on “if it bleeds it leads” journalism. Over a huge arena rock riff, Davies posits that while our media gatekeepers are pretty scummy, it’s the audience that deserves most of the blame. Violence means ratings.

The more they get, the more they need 
And every time they get harder and harder to please

 

 

America loves a trainwreck. And after eight years of a president who valued calm, rational diplomacy in the face of rampant hate, we’re hungrier than ever. We haven’t gotten to rubberneck in forever.  So along comes Trump, promising to blow it all up, to drain the swamp, to grab our better angels by their pussies. His stanky middle finger of a campaign appealed to a nation that was tired of being governed. We wanted to be entertained, much like the Romans that Davies devotes his second verse to:

The Roman promoters really did things right
They needed a show that would clearly excite
The attendance was sparse so they put on a fight 
Threw the Christians to the lions, sold out every night

“Give the People What They Want” does not sound like a typical Kinks song – its rudimentary blues hook is produced to a sheen, combining the catchiness of The Ramones with the emptiness of Kiss. There’s a screaming bar band guitar solo right where you’d expect Van Halen to put one. In an inspired satirical move, Davies infused his cynicism into the music itself, giving mainstream audiences what it wanted in 1981.

There’s a level of pretentiousness to this approach. Not all arena rock is bad. Not all people who find violent stories entertaining are bad. But I can’t help but identify. The acidity of this song tastes a lot like the bile I was swallowing in those early hours on November 9. More than 60 million Americans would rather have Norman Rockwell come back from the dead and give every coal miner a hand job while yelling “All Lives Matter” than vote for a woman. Our country is still virulently sexist, and racist, and embarrassingly susceptible to con artists.

 

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I’m truly afraid that Trump will actually try to build the 1950s white nationalist theme park that he promised us. But my biggest fear is that most of us will cheer him on. That chaos truly is what the people want. As Davies points out in his final verse, this obsession is nothing new:

When Oswald shot Kennedy, he was insane 
But still we watch the re-runs again and again 
We all sit glued while the killer takes aim

There is an upside to this bleak picture. “Give the People What They Want,” and the 1981 album of the same name, is a hell of a lot of fun – irony be damned. Ray Davies translated his disdain for humanity into what was arguably the last truly excellent Kinks album. Four years of President Trump is guaranteed to inspire many such works of art. And we’re going to need them. The bond between songwriter and listener is about to get even stronger.

The Song of the Election: “Pastime Paradise”

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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”:

Dissipation
Race Relations
Consolation
Segregation
Dispensation
Isolation
Exploitation
Mutilation
Mutations
Miscreation
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.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (55-51)

And we continue our methodical countdown of some guy’s 100 favorite albums of the 1990s. For no particular reason, either! This next batch of five rounds out #100-51, and it includes a record that’s depressing as all hell, one that confronts sadness and decay in a sweet, kinda triumphant way, and one that’s by Soul Coughing, proving that this is a list about the ’90s. So read away! Or if you like, check out the whole list so far. I’ll be back in a month or so to crack into the top 50! (“Hooray,” you say to yourself flatly, not even pretending to hide your sarcasm.)

Harvest Moon55. Neil Young – Harvest Moon (1992)

In the ’90s, we started to get a good idea of how the legendary artists of the ’60s and ’70s were going to deal with aging. Paul McCartney would dye his hair and keep on writing love songs. Stevie Wonder would pretty much retire. Bob Dylan would shroud himself in mortality and end up resuscitating his muse. But no artist stepped into middle age as organically as Neil Young did on Harvest Moon – an album of gentle country songs about life passing by, made to be listened to on a big front porch in the twilight. The then 47-year-old certainly doesn’t ignore the darkness, singing about the aching desperation of divorce, a waitress haunted by regrets, and a man contemplating suicide in a minivan. But his gently quavering voice, sympathetic turns of phrase, and clear-eyed belief in true love (especially on the title track) tip the scales from depressing to life-affirming. Then there’s “Old King,” a jaunty bluegrass eulogy to a hound dog that’s about as much fun as anybody could have contemplating death. If you could prescribe treatment for the human condition, Harvest Moon would be FDA-approved.

Electro-Shock Blues54. Eels – Electro-Shock Blues (1998)

Moving on, from one ruminative, regret-laden work to what is arguably the Grand Poobah of ruminative, regret-laden 1990s albums. After losing both his mother and sister in a short period of time, Mark Oliver Everett – the one-man phenomenon behind Eels – made a record that wallows in raw cynicism and deep, lying-on-the-bathroom-floor sadness (at its lowest, quietest moments, you can almost smell the porcelain). Lyrically, Elecro-Shock Blues is an open vein (e.g. “My life is shit and piss”), and it would be light years from this list if those often-brutal sentiments weren’t balanced out by the production, which was eclectic enough to make a fan out of Tom Waits. Among the many gorgeous acoustic ballads, there’s the lurching rhythms and crackling found sounds of “Cancer for the Cure,” the dance-folk breaks of “Last Stop: This Town” and the sexy Morphine rumble of “Hospital Food.” Hence, by the time Everett rewards us on the closing “P.S. You Rock My World” by admitting to a new appreciation for being alive, we’re wishing the whole beautiful thing wouldn’t end.

In A Priest-Driven Ambulance53. The Flaming Lips – In A Priest-Driven Ambulance (1990)

Unlike most of the epic rock music released in the ’90s, The Flaming Lips’ magnum opus – 1999’s The Soft Bulletin – was a gorgeously un-ironic embrace of hope and belief. But it was also the natural endgame of a creative impulse that was first exhibited nine years earlier, on the band’s fourth album. In A Priest-Driven Ambulance finds Lips songwriter Wayne Coyne deep in a Christ obsession, his analytical and spiritual sides clashing, adding an exotic tension to the ragged helium of his voice. “While I’m still myself/Your blankets covered me,” Coyne sings on the triumphant psych-folk opening “Shine On Sweet Jesus,” swooning at the beauty of belief. But over the spare chords and insistent crickets of “There You Are,” there’s the sickening chill of doubt –  “It makes you think that God was fucked up when he made this town.” By decade’s end, The Flaming Lips stood firmly on the side of belief in something more. Without stunning metaphysical wrestling matches like this album, that level of peace wouldn’t have been achievable.

Ruby Vroom52. Soul Coughing – Ruby Vroom (1994)

Like countless hypersensitive, white suburban teenagers in the 1990s, I was magnetically drawn to albums like The Chronic and Enter the 36 Chambers – raw, confident, impeccably produced works of art that possessed an egomaniacal energy I could leech off of. But I was just as crazy about bands like Barenaked Ladies and Primus, whose strident dorkiness spoke to the chicken-armed X-Files fanboy in me. So when I first heard Ruby Vroom’s opening song, “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago,” it was like hearing those two factions of my CD collection – and those two idealized versions of myself – gelling, and it kicked more ass than it had any right to. Few bass lines have ever burrowed as deep in the pocket as Sebastian Steinberg’s does here – the groove produced by Steinberg and drummer Yuval Dabay transcends the standard definition of rhythm, inciting a primal, emotional reaction that would make Elaine Benes feel like Gregory Hines. And when M. Doughty tells you that “Saskatoon is in the room” in his flat, nasal voice, you realize that post-ironic nerdy nonsense can play in the same sandbox as supreme-sonic-super-badness. That the silly shit you think is funny might not be the polar opposite of funky. That it’s not 100% ridiculous to dream that you could, one day, bring the motherfuckin’ ruckus.

Homogenic51. Bjork – Homogenic (1997)

Electronic music is fertile ground as a metaphor for sadness. Whether it’s Kanye West undergoing therapy-by-AutoTune on 808s & Heartbreak, David Bowie nailing what a “sense of doubt” sounds like during his Berlin period, or Portishead’s entire catalog, synthesized notes do a bang-up job representing a lack of emotional warmth. Which makes Bjork’s Homogenic a special album beyond the immediate bounty of its lush, philharmonic-tronica production. After the breathtaking genre whirlwinds of Debut and Post, Homogenic finds the artist working in one sonic cul-de-sac for the first time. The production makes you think twice about the originality of 21st century Radiohead – ghostly drum loops and synth patches give way to stunning string arrangements. It’s dizzyingly dour music that would make the perfect accompaniment to songs about winter, or war, or whatever kind of “sour time” you want to moan on about. But instead, Bjork uses them to sing about love as a connection that transcends the physical, that’s as inevitable as the tide, that surrounds us all whether we know it or not. Even when her music’s at its tamest, her impulses are anything but.

What’s In My Discman: October 2011

Nick Lowe – The Old Magic (2011)

Rock musicians typically don’t know how to age. The first time they see a shock of grey in their styled-to-look-mussed-up hair, they either double down on their denial and make music that proves they “still got it,” or go off the “reinvent myself” deep end. Which just adds to the pure pleasure of listening to Nick Lowe in the 21st century. With The Old Magic, the 62-year-old pub rock/new wave legend gives us his third straight offering of gently smirking tunes about loving, losing, and getting older all the while. It’s beautifully written material from an artist who’s comfortable in his own wrinkled skin, and a production that keeps its genre jumping to a minimum – relying mostly on soft vocal jazz arrangements and sprightly Buddy Holly shuffles to support Lowe’s curious, cooing voice. Because when you’ve got metaphors for failed love that are as wonderful as “Stoplight Roses,” you don’t need much else.

Stevie Wonder – In Square Circle (1985)

In my younger, stupider days, I would say things like “NOTHING good came out of the ’80s,” accompanied by the requisite eye-roll. I don’t like to think about me being an ignorant dick, but albums like In Square Circle demand this kind of personal reflection. Stevie Wonder fully embraced the synthetic production values of the decade here, something that would’ve once inspired my passive-aggressive scorn. Thankfully, now I actually listen to albums before judging them, and while Wonder’s 20th record doesn’t possess the warmth and grandiosity of his ’70s earth-shakers, it’s darn close to a pop masterpiece. Two jaw-dropping ballads are the biggest highlights – the scorned-lover-as-missing-person weeper “Whereabouts” and the classic unrequited love song “Overjoyed” – but the minor synth groove of “Part-Time Lover” and the staccato, drum machine funk of “Spiritual Walkers” are also fantastic listens, despite sounding very much like they were recorded in 1985.

Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes (2011)

Lykke Li made her first splash with the 2007 single “Little Bit,” a simple declaration of love that stayed with you, no matter how silly it looked on paper. And the singer continues to explore the same chilly neo-soul territory on her second album, digging deeper into her vocabulary to express love and devotion. Wounded Rhymes does possess the ruminative quality implied by the title, but it’s in the atmospherics more than the songs themselves, resulting in an album that sounds like Portishead after a fruitful therapy session. “I Know Places” is six-minutes of lo-fi folk strumming, an instrumental track that just might be coma-inducing – if it weren’t for Lykke Li’s light, bluesy vocal. When she sings, “I know places we can go, babe/Comin’ home, come unfold, babe,” the song goes from a slog to a spiritual.