All we ever wanted was…?

As the world continues to spiral into greater levels of global chaos, I find myself contemplating all of the common responses to the state of current affairs. In my previous essay, 45, Medea’s rage, and the sinking ship of American culture, I confronted the more nonchalant of these responses—that “nothing has really changed; it’s just business as usual.” This time around, I’d like to confront another common response that I’ve heard from several on-the-political-fence individuals—a contingent I often seek perspective and independent analysis from, taking into account the proposed neutrality of their socio-political stances. The response I’m referring to can be paraphrased as follows: “At the end of the day, we all want the same basic things for ourselves and for our loved ones. It’ll all work itself out.”

The first time I heard this response, I nodded in silent agreement, and thought to myself: you know? You’re right. What are we fighting for, if we all want the same basic things? But later, as I walked away from the individual providing this kernel of proposed wisdom, the flaw in their line of reasoning expanded—to the point where I could outline an entire chasm separating this pat observation from our observable reality. By the time I had thought it through from a variety of angles, the allegation seemed outright ludicrous. After all: is not the crux of political discourse that we don’t all agree on what we want for ourselves and our loved ones? Isn’t that why we (used to) teach civics in school, and have debate teams, and engage in reasoned dialogue surrounding the unanswerable but imperative question: How are we going to share in the direction of our society?

While I readily concede there are some basic human necessities we all share (food, water, shelter, and oxygen), I find it worth noting that even these universally accepted basics—the founding level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—are being called into question in our current state of affairs. Consider climate change—the most severe and defining issue of our time: the volume of individuals denying statistical evidence that our climate is changing, and that human beings are one of the biggest contributing factors (evidence that has now officially been removed from the EPA’s government website), indicates a disregard for the requirement of food and oxygen in the future. Likewise, passing legislation that would encourage and enable the contamination of our water supply (such as the decision to reverse policies preventing coal companies from dumping waste in our rivers) flies in the face of our shared need for potable water. At the end of the day, if we cannot agree that we need to conserve the planet, and preserve the natural resources that are essential to human sustenance (instead of flying off to Mars in one of Elon Musk’s space shuttles—where we may or may not find water); if we cannot agree on this, can we truly reach an agreement on anything? (And since when did the upkeep of planet Earth cease to be a non-negotiable for U.S. voters?)

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Thousands of protesters marched on April 22nd in support of evidenced-based reality; this is a snapshot of the rally held in Portland, OR. Photo by Alex Milan Tracy, courtesy of CNN and the Associated Press.

To build upon the foundation laid down in my previous essay (surrounding the two definitions of the word “myth,” which I will continue to differentiate as upper-case Myth vs. lower-case myth), it seems to me we are living through an era defined by myths. First, there is the myth that climate change (despite the overwhelming abundance of facts supporting its reality—let alone the observable reality of rising temperatures and increasingly erratic weather patterns) is a conspiracy developed by the Chinese, or by the liberal elite (the jury is still out as to which was the primary perpetrator, as I understand it). Second, the myth that we “all want the same basic things”—which once could have been categorized as an upper-case Myth, but as we can see from recent polls of public opinion, is no longer eligible for widespread consensus. Third, we have the dual myths surrounding issues of civil rights: on the Right, there is the myth that institutionalized racism, sexism, and homophobia (among other common discriminatory pretenses) do not actually exist; on the Left, the myth that prejudice can be wiped out by policing language and forcing the acceptance of cultural diversity through mainstreaming. In my own analysis, these are two of the most significant and detrimental of our current myths, so I’m going to devote another paragraph to defining them more clearly. In order to accomplish this, I find it is necessary to frame these myths in the context of the broader Myth they belie; by this, I’m referring to the Myth of freedom.

Like all (lower-case) myths, every Myth carries with it a note of unreality. The key difference between the two categories (M vs. m) lies in how the unreality is addressed. In the case of myths, the unreality inevitably provides a foundation for stupidity. Example given: a man believes in the myth that all young African-American males (especially those wearing hoodies) are up to no good—that they present a threat to the integrity of the community, and that this threat needs to be eliminated. This false belief leads to the callous and stupid act of murdering innocent young black men, under the horrific pretext of “standing one’s ground.” On the flip-side, Myths address the unreality by acknowledging the distance between reality and the Myth. For example: the Myth of freedom, as espoused by the founding fathers, indicates that it comes at a cost—that wars (civil and otherwise) are sometimes fought to preserve this abstract ideal, and to continually close the distance between the American reality and the American Myth. There is nobility in the Myth, even when it is of a purely quixotic variety, and even when it is pursued by erroneous means; there can never be nobility in myths, since they are fundamentally, intrinsically wrong.

Which brings us to the final, most devastating myth we are currently faced with: the myth (still held tight by many) that 45 is going to “Make America Great Again.” This myth can easily and readily be held up against the proven, objective reality that 45 cares for no one’s interests outside of his own, and that his own interests (which are profit- and ratings-driven) do not reflect the stated interests of his adoring minions. But just as with George Zimmerman and the late Treyvon Martin, the myth of the “great white hope” has provided the foundation for stupidity of a caliber we have not seen here in decades. And likewise, the liberal myth that mainstreaming diversity is not just a means to an end, but an end in and of itself, has proven fertile soil for many a stupid action and response on the Left. Ultimately, all of these myths present grossly miscalculated efforts to arrive at the Myth of freedom—without any of the legwork that history has proven crucial to its pursuit. They are wild goose chases disguised as shortcuts, and while at times the intentions of their travelers are entirely malevolent (as can be seen with 45’s “basket of deplorables”—the racists, misogynists, and ideological lunatics who congregate around the comparably ordinary and delusional Republicans at his rallies), one occasionally spots a kernel of good intent in a person wandering down one of these deceptive detours.

For instance, it appears to me that the current myth, “we all want the same basic things for ourselves,” is a desperate but worthy attempt—by concerned, confused citizens—to consolidate and process the disorienting array of recent events. It’s the nautical equivalent of clinging to a buoy in the middle of a raging hurricane, hoping it will provide a safe harbor; a beacon of stability until the storm blows over. At best, it’s an expression of solidarity: at worst, a cop-out. Ultimately, I suppose the very fact that so many people are turning to this same beacon for solace proves there is some legitimacy to its proposition. But seeing as how we can no longer really point to our basic necessities as positive criteria for our shared interest(s), we are left instead to interpret this expression of shared interest as merely a negative criterion—providing the outline for some vague, positive criteria which now require (re)defining. It is almost as if we were all trying to speak this shared interest into existence, but not recognizing that every person is speaking a different language and—in some case—speaking of different things altogether. In trying to reach a renewed consensus on our core priorities, a pragmatist (such as myself) may conjure something along the lines of a national town hall meeting—a symposium where every voting citizen gathers under one roof, to unilaterally vote upon what our shared interests are going to be, moving forward. “Do we want to have clean drinking water? Yay or nay? What about clean energy vs. coal energy? Or the planet itself: do we want the planet to remain habitable, or is that up for debate? What say you?”

Obviously, such a forum would be logistically unfeasible (to say nothing of the ideological lines drawn in the sand from the outset). But the idea of such a gathering—absurd though it seems—paints a clear picture of just how absurd our situation has become. I noted, in my previous entry, that ignorance was not always seen to be an admirable trait in dominant American culture: that citizens used to want its leaders to be smart, competent individuals—and that people used to seek out smarter folks than themselves, in order to learn from the experts and to advance in their cognitive growth (alas, such a pursuit is muddled these days by the dozens of self-proclaimed “experts,” seeking job security in professions for which they have no real conviction or proper qualification).

As I see it, we are at a tipping point in our nation’s history, and it is still unclear which way the full tilt will swing. Although the election of 45 is one of the most singularly idiotic and irresponsible actions our country has committed in recent history, the outpouring of public concern provides evidence to support the theory that folks might start to remember why intelligence and competency used to be given expectations in leadership. Considering how little is likely to be done, in the way of dismantling this administration anytime soon (since Republicans—well-known for prioritizing autonomy and authoritarianship over public concern—hold a Congressional majority in both the House and the Senate), we have at least two years of revered ignorance to survive, as a species, before our next given opportunity to redefine the tilt of our nation’s conscience. Put simply: we have two years (maybe less) to decide whether we want to be a country defined by a Myth, or a country defined by myths. One path leads to regeneration; the other to self-destruction.

* * *

Official music video for the title track of Father John Misty’s latest opus, released shortly after the inauguration of 45.

I want to shift gears at this point and spend some time talking about Father John Misty—formerly known as Josh Tillman, one-time drummer for the acclaimed indie folk/rock band, Fleet Foxes. Over the course of three immaculately produced albums (his most recent outing, Pure Comedy, was released this past month), Tillman/FJM has consistently and intelligently explored some of our country’s foremost concerns in the new millennium. On his first album, the practically flawless Fear Fun, Tillman embarked upon this quest with the apocalyptic sigh of “Funtimes in Babylon:” “Before they put me to work in a government camp,” he pleaded. “Before they do my face up like a corpse and say ‘get up and dance.’

Five years on from then, and I see no reason to believe he’ll be rounded up for government duty anytime soon. Case in point, Father John Misty appears to have finally arrived (on his own terms) to “the masses”—flown in on the wings of a typically impassioned performance on the resurgent Saturday Night Live, and heralded by the appropriation of a crucified Kurt Cobain impersonator in his most recent music video (to further drive home his renowned meta- factor, the Cobain stand-in is played by that lamented-yet-celebrated former child star, Macaulay Culkin). Interviews and radio features in support of the release have highlighted the polarizing dynamic of this latest offering, while taking care to note (and rightly so) that this is nothing new for Tillman. But while a few glowing reviews have emerged, and Paste Magazine has boldly named it the #1 album of 2017 (to date), the overall reception has appeared more lukewarm than that granted its satirical predecessor (I Love You, Honeybear). Of course, such things are subject to change at the flip of a coin, and I believe it both possible and likely that Pure Comedy will find its audience by year’s end.

Admittedly, the record is far from perfect. But flaws included, FJM Vol. 3 is a captivating and brilliantly executed double album—complete with odd little detours and a fascinatingly structured song sequence (the more full-blooded numbers are stacked towards the front; by the end of side 2, the energy has sunk into mellow contemplation—not unlike many a ’70s genre film/concept album. This appears, to me, in keeping with the original Misty spirit and aesthetic, which has always had one foot firmly planted in ’70s nostalgia). A glance at the obsessive liner notes (which unassumingly begin with a scripture from the book of Ecclesiastes) will inform the reader that Pure Comedy is to be heard from the mindset of a person slowly falling out of space, heading towards an extra-terrestrial planet occupied by a conjectured, half-formed species. This species, as one may expect from Tillman’s outspoken views on the state of the human race, is a doppelganger for homo sapiens. As with many a fable and experimental film, FJM has here removed the subject of his analysis from its natural context, and placed it in a stylized substitute context. The motives behind this literary strategy have been scrutinized by many a cultural scholar over the years, from an assortment of angles; one of the more common interpretations highlights the general understanding that by transposing a subject to a foreign environment, the subject is brought into greater relief for the spectator, and the Mythical truth of the subject’s existence is made clear. And if there’s one thing Father John Misty has been keen on from the outset, it’s the American Myth.

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Kirk Douglas embodies the Myth of the last great frontiersman in David Miller’s 1962 feature, Lonely Are the Brave © 1962, Universal Pictures

From name-dropping Joseph Campbell in the closing track of Fear Fun, to tackling the Myth of the Western lothario in “Only Son of a Ladies’ Man,” to dismantling the American Myth itself in I Love You Honeybear‘s “Bored in the U.S.A.,” Tillman has consistently emphasized the Mythical component in his work. At his most brilliant and incisive, Tillman’s alter ego comes across as the “last great frontiersman,” attempting to salvage something of the American Myth for future generations, while simultaneously pointing to the futility of Myth in the context of our present American landscape. Taken as a whole, his work calls to mind an early Randy Newman composition, “Cowboy,” best known as recorded by Harry Nilsson (whose vocal stylings are frequently echoed in Tillman’s own recordings); “Cowboy,” in turn, was inspired by the Kirk Douglas picture, Lonely Are the Brave—a filmed fable, depicting the Myth of the last great frontiersman. But whereas both Newman and Douglas embodied entirely different characters from one project to the next, Tillman has (for now, at least) made the bold decision to tether himself to this creatively engineered persona. One wonders whether his ideological commitment will prove the best use of his natural talents moving forward; one also marvels at the chutzpa required to make such a commitment in the first place. As far as his most recent outing is concerned, both appraisals seem valid. Let’s begin from a skeptic’s perspective.

One of the challenges that Pure Comedy presents for its creator is the Godardian effect—which Rainer Werner Fassbinder defined brilliantly by observing that his films “never get to the right audience” (as quoted in a 1969 interview with Joachim von Mengershausen). For as brilliant as Misty’s songs (and Godard’s films) truly are, it seems unlikely that everyday, disillusioned and misinformed Americans will connect with and/or relate to his deliberated, academic approach (just as the ramblings of Yours Truly are unlikely to ever reach this same, sought-out audience). That said, if ever there was an opportunity for Father John Misty to become a household name, that opportunity is now: the fact that he will be performing (and is already selling out) in proper theater venues across the world—as opposed to the smaller haunts of tours past—means he will be conveying his Mythical ideology to the broadest canvas of spectators yet available to him. Conversely, the rather downbeat quality of his latest offering (in comparison to album #1 and at least 2/3 of album #2) may present a challenge for those with a short attention span. Still, one hopes that at least a handful of dejected bigots will wander into one of these theaters and come out, in some small way, transformed.

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The Where’s Waldo?-meets-Bruegel album artwork for Pure Comedy, produced by renowned New Yorker cartoonist, Edward Steed © 2017, SubPop Records

The other, rather more apparent fly in the album’s ointment, lies is the complicated relationship between Tillman, his alter ego, his audience, and the press. Put simply, it is nigh impossible for any dedicated listener to appreciate the album (and its songs) on merits alone. Just as Warren Zevon’s and Harry Nilsson’s troubled lives often interfered with the audience’s ability to appreciate the pure craftsmanship and beauty of their songs (which they cranked out prolifically during their respectively chaotic careers), Misty’s flamboyant persona and his intentionally pompous approach to interviews—rather than illuminating the purity of his pursuit—often present barriers to the critical appraisal of his work. In part, his strategy appears to be rooted in shining a light on the self-obsessed, numbers-driven, and (frequently) clueless work ethic of present-day critics. But in order to effectively convey his critique, and to avoid the pitfalls of superiority-complex-guided sermonizing, Tillman has been forced to incriminate himself in these attacks. Ultimately, one could argue that his relentless entanglement with media journalists has diluted the clarity of the work itself (especially when he becomes overly self-conscious about how his persona is going to be perceived by the public). One wonders what he might be able to communicate if, like Randy Newman or Nina Simone, he were to throw off the shackles of self-incrimination and popular attention, and devote his energies to fully inhabiting the disparate characters in his songs—abandoning his ironic mission to convert the ignorant masses, and shifting back to the more purely narrative direction of Fear Fun. Sometimes, it seems that by dedicating himself to the perspective of an omniscient narrator, he’s actually taking the easy way out of the artist’s dilemma.

After all: if Tillman has an Achilles’ Heel, it would have to be his obsession with swallowing every cultural phenomenon in his vicinity and insisting on having the final say. To his credit, the focus of Pure Comedy on a conceptual journey (from outer space to a fictitious planet) provides the ideal framework to highlight his own frailty as a creator. It’s the sonic equivalent of a journey down the road to Compostela—or Damascus, or Canterbury: there are no great revelations at the end; no astonishing solutions. There is only the endless mystery of existence and the enigmatic process of self-discovery (epitomized in the gorgeous, 13-minute odyssey of “Leaving L.A.”). While it is difficult to imagine a more perfect album closer than Fear Fun’s “Every Man Needs a Companion,” “In Twenty Years Or So” provides a perfectly adept coda to the meta narrative of Pure Comedy—setting the finale in some unspecified piano bar, with the Talking Heads’ seminal “This Must Be the Place” playing somewhere in the background. As painstakingly developed as the album is, its finest moments seem to reveal themselves (as they do in this finale) when Tillman lets his guard and his pretense down. And at the end of the day, this vulnerability points to the most convincing message underlying his hyperbolic work: our artificial construction of “better-than-ness” (as defined in his self-penned liner notes) does nothing but interfere with our ability to be functional, decent, useful living creatures. And it is this pretentiousness—whether of artistic, political, or moral/religious superiority—that most explicitly interferes with our pursuit of Mythical freedom. This revelation is the album’s ultimate saving grace.

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Monica Vitti confronts the paradox of modern living in Antonioni’s Il Deserto Rosso © 1965, Rizzoli Films

These days, as Tillman has repeatedly observed, it is far more common for people to be seeking freedom from Myth, rather than running towards it. In the second (and stand-out) track from his latest album, FJM serenades the listener with the prospect of a civilization with “No gods to rule us/No drugs to soothe us/No Myths to prove stuff/No love to confuse us.” For an instant, it almost sounds enticing. And then we remember: this is the place we’re heading to. When listening to the record, I’m sometimes reminded of the quartet of divisive, ennui-fueled films (L’AvventuraLa NotteL’Eclisse, and Il Deserto Rosso) made by Michelangelo Antonioni during the early-to-mid ’60s. In these films, Antonioni (or Antoni-ennui, as one less-than-convinced reviewer christened him) explored the emerging struggle of modern man and woman in the latter half of the 20th century: namely, how will we adapt to a modern technological reality that renders many of our pre-existing human traits (close-knit friendships; emotional sensitivity; human kindness) seemingly unnecessary? Seen today, these films have a chilling, yet faintly comical quality to them: although many of his predictions appear startlingly prescient and somewhat profound, there is something undeniably absurd in the mannered movements and designs of his dystopic visions—which also call to mind the films of Jacques Tati; Playtime and Trafic in particular. Not unlike Pure Comedy, and the outrageous album artwork designed by Edward Steed (best-known for his regular contributions to The New Yorker), these mid-century filmmakers shared a common thread in their outlook: mankind is on the brink of a civilization with no need for civility.

It’s an assessment that puts us, as listeners and observers, in a curious position. While difficult to argue with, the finality of this assessment—which is essentially at the opposite end of the more cautiously optimistic: “we all want the same things”—precludes the possibility of a tenable paradigm shift. In “Ballad of the Dying Man” (and elsewhere on the record), Father John Misty directly confronts the dilemma of the modern-day progressive: he defines this dilemma in terms of our easy access to every hateful and ignorant remark perpetrated by ill-intentioned “trolls” (on the internet and in the press), and the apparent impossibility of doing anything about this without first becoming a contestant in their reality show (to further expand the meta- factor of the song’s narrative, its protagonist clearly calls to mind Misty’s own complicated relationship with millennial culture and clueless music writers). Put another way, the struggle of the contemporary conscientious objector can be defined by our having to acknowledge the existence of all these insignificant myths, in order to properly tear them apart and offer an alternative. And considering the pace of information technology and the seemingly incessant distribution of falsehoods, it is a hopeless and thankless task. It’s only fitting that Tillman should wind this song down with the following verse:

Eventually the dying man takes his final breath
But first checks his news feed to see what he’s ’bout to miss
And it occurs to him a little late in the game
We leave as clueless as we came
From rented heavens to the shadows in the cave
We’ll all be wrong someday.

But is that really all there is? One wonders. And the beauty of this album lies in its willingness to let us. Although replete with elements of finality, Pure Comedy is most easily distinguishable from its predecessors as a more contemplative and open-ended exercise in narrative songwriting. Tillman’s humbling concession at the end of “Ballad…” seems to stress this shift in tone, and it certainly makes one curious as to what his—and our—next move will be.

* * *

There is a song on the 1982 studio album by Bauhaus, titled “All We Ever Wanted Was Everything.” The lyrical counterpoint to this titular statement is: “All we ever got was cold.” As it stands, it seems that we Americans have gotten both outcomes over the course of this past century. While we remain one of the most wealthy and possession-obsessed countries on the planet, our voracious consumption habits and our extinction of humanity from popular culture have led to an expanding chill across the land. Some political commentators and historians have identified this as the chill of fascism; and while their assessment is far from groundless, the word doesn’t quite do justice to the magnitude of our socio-cultural problems. It seems more appropriate, in my view, to define this phenomenon as the chill of emptiness (which, oddly enough, has been amplified by the religious sector in the United States: a population that spent decades harping on about the spiritual dearth of their country, but ultimately committed the most spiritually vacant act of all by giving into the emptiness of 45). It’s enough to make any reasonable person question, with utmost sincerity: What exactly is it that we want?

At the close of this seemingly interminable nightfall on our nation’s conscience, maybe this will be the line of collective questioning that leads to the restoration of the American Myth—and the beginning of a new age. For if we cannot bring ourselves to dream of a better future, and to bring this future into the present, of what use are we?

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