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Vice Principals is the show that every American adult—and more specifically, every racially disoriented white American—should probably be watching and talking about over dinner. As it becomes increasingly difficult to satirize reality (with reality itself having become an un-ironic satire of social indecency), the creators of this half-hour HBO comedy series (Jody Hill and Danny McBride) have somehow managed to pointedly encapsulate everything bad that is afflicting our country’s societal wellness—while at the same time saving a space for the remaining dregs of decency, which are routinely squeezed out of similar attempts at encapsulating our problems in dramatic form. It’s a program defined by its crass, cruel, grotesquely arch, and (often unexpectedly) black comedy. But while the ostensible victim of the show’s first season was a black woman climbing the ladder of upper management in a public school system, it is the show’s prime villain (her cold-blooded VP, Lee Russell) who undergoes the greatest scrutiny and, ultimately, comes across as the “biggest loser.” Unlike other programs (in both documentary and fiction realms), which consume themselves with endeavoring to paint the plight of the minority citizen in shades of self-pitying helplessness—with a frequently less-than-subtle nod to a (typically white) social justice warrior, who rides in like a knight in shining armor to save the damsel in distress—Vice Principals is a ruthless portrait of the victimizers; making no excuses, and taking no… well, maybe a few prisoners.

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Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) sizes up her two infantile and devious cohorts in HBO’s Vice Principals. © 2016, HBO Networks.

When Dr. Belinda Brown (played superbly by Kimberly Hebert Gregory)—the impossible-not-to-be-enamored-with principal who sets the show in motion—is brutally forced out of its equation at the end of the first season, one feels a profound sense of loss. But not only hers: ours, as well. (If anything, Dr. Brown likely considers herself released from the toxic environment of her fellow protagonists’ making.) It is our loss to not have her as a prominent part of the show’s perversely hysterical conversation anymore, being left to contend exclusively with the petty hooligans who have taken her place. In actuality, at the start of the second season’s premiere episode, we find Dr. Brown alive and well—reunited with her husband and two kids, and living a good distance from the deranged vice principals who attempted to ruin her life (and very nearly succeeded). When she begins to hint at her own departure from the show’s narrative, it not-so-subtly calls to mind the departure of our country’s previous commander-in-chief—whom we’ve since seen skydiving, vacationing with his family, and generally conducting himself like an all-around decent human being. All the while, total chaos and insanity looms in the place he used to sit, and a nation is left watching history re-play itself out like a warped VHS tape of white power rallies, devastating hurricanes, incredulous White House leaks, presidential scandals, and arrogant white kids with bad haircuts and polo shirts, armed with tiki torches to defend poorly sculpted monuments of the Confederacy (just when you think you’ve seen it all…) It’s hard to watch this last season of Vice Principals and not blow a wish for Dr. Brown to come back and give one more inspirational pep rally in the North Jackson High School auditorium—just to feel a tingle of hope, that all is not (yet) lost.

Looking back, the first season was a chore for many to sit through: it garnered justifiable criticism for subjecting viewers to an exhaustive, vicarious experience of racist/sexist intimidation and persecution—which so closely echoes the real-life experiences lived by millions of Americans. But while the show certainly has its fair share of “cover my eyes ’cause I can’t bear to see where this goes” moments, I would argue that it remains a rewarding, perhaps even necessary experience for white Americans (especially white men). It forces the viewer to witness the devastating outcomes of intolerance, but not from an easy “scared straight” perspective; instead, the viewer actually has to do some work—to connect the dots between the shallow instincts that compel a person to behave in such a hateful fashion, and the reality such a person must effectively disengage from in order to fulfill such absolute hate. For hate is, ultimately, an uninhabitable condition (something one needs constant reminding of at this point in time). To highlight this truth, there comes a moment in every episode during which VP Neal Gamby (our anti-hero-cum-protagonist, played by McBride) will catch himself in the middle of some atrociously mean-spirited act—typically provoked by his far more nihilistic partner-in-crime, VP Russell—and question his ability to follow through with his ruthless vows, eventually caving in to his own vulnerability. In these moments, the viewer recognizes that even the Scroogiest of conservative white men has a soft spot, somewhere deep down; and in this act of empathetic recognition, the viewer finds their own embers of hateful inclination slowly sizzling out. (In turn, viewers with an overtly racist and/or sexist inclination—who might, at first glance, align themselves with the diabolic intentions of Russell and Gamby—are bound to cave in by the first season’s conclusion, upon realizing the fruitless and dispiriting outcome of the protagonists’ hate.)

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Vice principals Lee Russell (left, Walton Goggins) and Neal Gamby (right, Danny McBride) contend with the unsustainability of their own prejudices. © 2016, HBO Networks.

Since the inauguration of 45, I’ve been troubled by the response of many a despairing liberal to the ill-informed cocktail of bigotry and racial intimidation perpetuated by the president and his base. On the one hand, it seemed to me the reaction of liberals was disproportionately soft—compared to the out-and-out violence (verbal, physical, psychological) that we found ourselves up against; on the other, it seemed a pretty ill-advised approach to fight fire with fire: to attempt and wipe out hate by singling out and shaming the haters, many of whom are so blinded by their own misinformation that they fail to recognize their bigotry as hatred incarnate. I recall beating my head against a wall (literally), and exchanging a series of frustrated emails with friends, most of which culminated with a half-joking recommendation that we split the country in half, effectively separating the evolutionists from the devolutionists. In seeking a broader perspective, I found myself drawn to the brilliant and frequently sardonic songs of Randy Newman, which have—throughout the past four-plus decades—effectively charted the folly of the stupid white man in America; sans effigies, platitudes, or other common forms of creative scapegoating. And I asked myself: Where are the Randy Newmans of today? Where are the Gore Vidals, the James Baldwins, the Nina Simones? How come every visible attempt at protesting the ignorant insanity of 45’s America appears to swing toward the two outer extremes of timid sloganeering and destructive violence? (Fortunately, not long after I went through this line of questioning, it was announced that Mr. Newman would be releasing a new studio album later this year—providing a much-needed salve. Far less fortunately, so many voices belonging to people of color have been effectively suppressed, repressed, depressed, or extinguished altogether; rendering it difficult for the range of creative perspectives the country ought to be represented by to truly flourish—and sentencing the fate of acceptable social protest to a kneel in a football stadium.)

Setting aside the apparent racial intolerance that has festered throughout the country (and the Russian interference that reinforced this intolerance through strategic interventions on social media), part of this dilemma likely stems from another root cause of 45’s presidency: the mindset underlying that lamentable term, “political correctness.” In hindsight, it is difficult to imagine 45’s candidacy gaining the kind of momentum it generated without the scapegoat of liberal hyper-sensitivity. Every slogan developed throughout his campaign served to highlight this critique: from “crooked Hillary,” to “bad hombres,” to “what a nasty woman,” to the cringe-inducing “he can grab my…,” to the swiftly appropriated “deplorable and proud of it,” the racial hatred permeating the campaign’s tone was matched only by its general disdain for pre-meditated and/or sensible syntax. And as with all false generalizations and stereotypes throughout history, there was, in fact, a justifiable criticism at the onset of this profane game of Chinese whispers. Namely, the criticism of the left’s increasingly rigid thinking on the subject of policing language: a well-intentioned effort to nip hate speech in the bud, but one that has frequently neglected to take into account the Quixotic nature of its own pursuit. For just like the idealist of Cervantes’ great novel, the “P.C. police” (as they’re commonly referred to by irritable right-wingers) often find themselves chasing windmills and missing the forest for the trees: so wrapped up in the semantics of isolated incidents, they lose sight of the motivators behind the language they are policing—which might foreseeably range from absolute, vitriolic hatred; to an infantile desire to provoke or offend; to sheer ignorance of the meanings attached to the words one has chosen.

It is within this context that Vice Principals presents a swooping breath of fresh, tension-splitting air. Although the premise of the show is itself a persistently tense exercise in caustic polarization, the manner in which it mirrors the real-life tensions surrounding its creation (considering that the first season’s airing coincided with the peak of the 2016 election) serves to deflate the pressure accompanying its subject matter. Here we find three character types that are frequently subject to the “politically correct” treatment—an effeminate, plausibly closeted gay man; a heavyweight divorcé; and a well-educated woman of color—released from the popular liberal’s cocoon of cultural suffocation, and allowed to live and breathe as characters that are every bit as nuanced as they are dense; almost like actual people. And if the show has a secret ingredient in the recipe of its greatness, it most likely lies within this astute recognition that vilification and deification are equally ineffectual tropes (both in narrative terms, and in lived reality). It would be easy—all too easy—to rewrite the show with Gamby and Russell (embodied by the relentlessly brilliant Walton Goggins) as dyed-in-the-wool hate-mongers, with a cheaply sketched-in backstory of how they came to be so hateful (e.g. childhood abuse; bullying; exposure to violent crime): the rest of the series—assuming the form of a prime-time melodrama—would essentially write itself, with the characters either achieving progress towards an awareness of the origins for their respective prejudices; or, conversely, digging their heels in deeper and, eventually, falling on the sword of their own bigotry. Not only would such a literal execution of the premise be uninteresting: it would render it increasingly difficult for the actors to bring any real pathos or complexity to their characters, since such a narrative is ultimately a glorified journey from point A to point B. In other words, this more “sensitized” approach would present the antithesis of a real person’s life journey, which invariably presents a more complex trajectory through various stages of change and emotional/intellectual growth.

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Gregory (right) provides the heart and soul, and Goggins (left) the diabolical thrust behind Vice Principals—the only great satire thus far broadcast on American television in the year 2017. © 2016, HBO Networks.

Rather than taking the easy way out of contending with bigoted protagonists, Hill and McBride have boldly chosen the more challenging, and far more rewarding narrative approach. In Gamby and Russell, they have created two strangely… lovable bigots. Not that one loves them because of their bigotry (the show is structured in such a way that such sympathies are unlikely, at worst); one loves them in spite of the raging ignorance and intolerance that continually threatens to swallow them whole. Instead of being vilified and caricatured as two creatures from the black lagoon who’ve arisen to claim some distorted interpretation of supremacy, Gamby and Russell are just two stupid white boys with no real grasp on the concept of emotional maturity—and watching their psyches disintegrate from episode to episode is every bit as comical as it is maddening. Not unlike our current president, whose racist inclinations frequently appear to stem less from an inherent sense of racial superiority (I mean, just look at him), but more from a cynically strategic approach to soliciting support from pockets of the U.S. voter base, which any seasoned politician with a modicum of decency would refuse to entertain (e.g. David Duke and his cohort, and at least half of our Presidential Cabinet). But the real masterstroke of Vice Principals is that, despite the uncanny parallels between our presidential administration and the admin of North Jackson High, the show succeeds precisely where the president’s administration has failed: by actually making us care about the fate of its ignorant protagonists.

It is safe to say, at this point, that hardly a person in the country—or, more broadly, on the face of the earth—can be bothered to care about the personal fate of the 45th president. It is, in fact, difficult to think of any figure in our nation’s history who has been so widely (and so justifiably) reviled, across the board of political identification and cultural affiliation. And true to form, 45 has surrounded himself with individuals who only serve to further dehumanize his public persona: compounding the reality television aesthetic of his own making, and continually escalating the threshold of public disdain. And I would here argue that it is this aesthetic of idiocy—this constant talking down to the citizens of a country who, by and large, know they deserve better—that presents the biggest hurdle for his detractors to surmount. The brilliantly monotonous condescension of Maxine Waters, in addressing one of the president’s multiple administrative chumps, Steve Mnuchin, provides a case study in the only appropriate way one can respond to such arrogant bluster: consistently raising the point (“reclaiming my time”) of our administration’s inadequacy, incompetency, and seemingly interminable disrespect towards the citizens whose interests it has been charged to uphold.

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Dr. Belinda Brown: carrying on with conviction and humor. © 2016, HBO Networks.

Likewise, in Season 2 of Vice Principals, Dr. Brown brilliantly dismantles Neal Gamby’s initial hypothesis regarding his violent assault at the culmination of Season 1: upon being accused of Gamby’s attempted murder, the former Jackson High Principal scoffs at this suggestion, instead drawing Gamby’s attention to a tattoo she has had affixed to her back—depicting her two former vice principals actually eating shit, while smiling and amorously holding hands. It’s her own personal idea of revenge: a gesture that hilariously highlights the racial divide at the heart of Season 1’s tension. For whereas the white male testosterone pumping through Gamby’s and Russell’s systems repeatedly compels them to acts of childish violence and lashing out, the cool “been there, done that” attitude of Dr. Brown—whose past experiences with indignant white men can only be imagined by the viewer—empowers her to keep her calm and carry on with humor and conviction: two things the country (if not the world) is in most dire need of now.

It has yet to be seen how the remainder of the series will play itself out. As Russell and Gamby delve deeper into their farcical investigation of Gamby’s shooting, one can’t help but think of the President’s own glorified wild goose chase: to single out his dissenters, and thereby satiate his acolytes with a gushing fountain of persecutory accusations directed at the liberals they all thumbed their noses at this last election (or, to expand upon this metaphor with an even more precise one, the noses they cut off to spite their own faces). Two well-played scenes in the most recently aired episode serve to highlight this real-life parallel: in one, Gamby enlists a black security guard from the school to search the lockers of multiple black students, all of whom he has targeted as prime suspects for his attempted assassination (without a shred of evidence, of course). After finding nothing but homework, textbooks, and a scientific calculator in one boy’s locker, the security guard observes in a disheartened tone: “Man, you actually made me think he was guilty!” The other scene in question entails Russell planting a hot mic in the teacher’s break room, in order to tune in to the gossip taking place behind his back (most of it directed at his gaudy wardrobe, social awkwardness, and apparently deadly halitosis): when he later proceeds to fire his entire faculty for subversion, one immediately thinks of Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon, Reince Preibus, Sally Yates, Michael Flynn; the Mooch.

For some prospective viewers, this will all prove a little too much too soon. And yet, in bringing ourselves to truly care about the fate(s) of Gamby and Russell—in wanting them to get at least a little woke; to stop being such selfish assholes, and to play a little bit nicer—there’s a chance we might bring ourselves to care a smidge more about the fate of this altogether asinine administration, along with the misguided minions who stubbornly refuse to withdraw their support for it. In turn, and for better or worse, it is they who now dictate the fate of our nation.

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Depeche Mode performing at the “DTE Energy Center” (formerly Pine Knob) in Clarkston/Detroit, MI, on August 27th, 2017.

I’m standing in a sea of people (most of them dressed in black, or something approximating), bobbing my head in nonverbal agreement as Dave Gahan leaps about the stage at a large outdoor venue in Clarkston, about an hour north of Detroit: according to its Wikipedia entry, the venue was formerly known as Pine Knob, before the “Pine” was dropped from the name. (Presently, the amphitheater is referred to by the markedly less spirited name of the corporation leasing it for advertisement.) Gahan slowly scans the crowd as he melodiously observes—in that well-established, sensual growl we’ve all grown to know and love: “You’ve been kept down/You’ve been pushed ’round/You’ve been lied to/You’ve been fed truths.” The theater grow increasingly silent, as fans lean in to decipher the words to a song from the newest Depeche Mode album: “Who’s making your decisions?/You or your religion?/Your government, your countries/You patriotic junkies…

The crowd roars with something between consensus and confusion; as though torn between the pride of one’s own patriotic addiction, and the awareness that this rather mundane line of lyrical questioning may be too on-the-nose for comfort. The roar swells to a cry of total submission as Gahan and songwriter Martin L. Gore join in unison (an octave apart) to deliver one of their most downbeat-ly whip-smart choruses (“Where’s the revolution?/C’mon, people, you’re letting me down“), before lunging into a second verse of inquisitive befuddlement at the evident complacency among the masses they once dedicated an entire album to.

The performance was riveting on multiple levels, not the least of which rates Gahan’s incredibly active on-stage presence. But beyond the acrobatic microphone twirling and hip-shaking, the timeliness of this tour couldn’t escape even the most oblivious of audience participants. In the previous week’s news cycle alone, the country learned of 45’s reversal of a ban on police departments purchasing military gear; the bafflingly inappropriate Presidential pardon of “America’s toughest sheriff,” Joe Arpaio; and the devastating wreckage being caused by Hurricane Harvey in the Southernmost regions of the country—calling to memory the fiasco surrounding the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (and not yet calling to mind the wreckage of Hurricane Irma, still only a blip around the corner in the minds of most citizens).

With this as the backdrop, one couldn’t help but pick up shades of their ingenious Rose Bowl concert in June of ’88, which provided source material for one of the most legendary and influential live albums of the decade—Depeche Mode 101. Nearing the end of Reagan’s second term in office, and coinciding with the start of the UK band’s crossover success with listeners in mainstream America, the event was a phenomenon of culturally relevant bombast: from the then-quite-shocking, counter-religious anthem, “Blasphemous Rumours,” to the anthemic-yet-poignant “Black Celebration” (simultaneously calling to mind the band’s gothic glory and the dark cloud of AIDS), to the heroin-streaked exhilaration of “Never Let Me Down Again,” to their brilliantly ambiguous tribute to the virtues of capitalism (“Everything Counts”), 101 was a bona fide, counter-cultural harbinger. It was only fitting that it should’ve been captured by the acclaimed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker—who previously lent his visionary perspective to documentaries on the fateful Altamont festival, the Monterey Pop festival, Bowie’s final Ziggy concert with the Spiders From Mars, and the cultural zenith of Woodstock (among others). To this day, Pennebaker’s 101 film carries a gravitas that few other filmed music documents of the decade can reasonably lay claim to: the fact that the band had yet to unleash their most enormously successful record and tour (Violator) merely serves to highlight the historical weight of this concert; and more broadly, the on-going significance of its performers.

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If one were to search for a musical document of comparable relevance, one shouldn’t have to go far to stumble upon that other behemoth of ’80s alternative pop, U2—a marginally more commercial enterprise by this point in the decade, but one that shared more than a few key ingredients: both were UK imports (a feature more proudly showcased among Bono & co., but an important element of both bands’ successes); both shared fairly inauspicious, working class origins; and they both shared a genuine love of American R&B—something that may be more apparent to U2’s bevy of American listeners, but is no less true of their more broodingly electronic counterpart (if in doubt, refer to the twangy riffs in “Personal Jesus” and “Pleasure Little Treasure;” or the surprising gospel ballad, “Condemnation”). They also shared a common visual design aesthetic, as seen through their respective work(s) with the acclaimed photographer/filmmaker, Anton Corbijn, and by their frequent reliance on highly polished, cinematic imagery.

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Depeche Mode (from left to right: Martin L. Gore, Dave Gahan, Andy Fletcher) photographed by Anton Corbijn in 2017.

More significantly than their sonic and visual similarities, however, the two bands in question represent something far more macro and culturally meaningful: they both pointed—more adroitly at some times than others in their wide-spanning, lucrative careers—to the vastest possibilities of bombast in the still-blossoming arena of pop music; an arena that could be argued to have since dried up, having reached the most dreaded end of ought-to-be-extinction. Back in 1988, stage design aficionados had yet to see the likes of Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour; jumbo-tron technology was still in its formative stages; and holograms were simply cheap stickers on plastic rings found in Cracker Jack boxes. There was an air of possibility and experimentation surrounding the prospect of a commercial band doing an arena tour. Surely, financial dividends proved to be the over-riding intent in such pursuits for many an interested party (as demonstrated in borderline-comical form at the end of Pennebaker’s film of 101, when the venue’s merchandising team—many of whom had never heard of Depeche Mode, and were clearly doubtful the band would be able to fill even a small portion of the rather sizable football stadium—scratch their heads in befuddlement as they wade in a sea of cash spent by loving fans on t-shirts, buttons, programs, pins, and posters); but the late ’80s represented a real pinnacle in the development of large-scale pop music performances, and it wasn’t all just about the dough.

A most telling example of this tug-of-war between commercial and artistic interests was the infamously over-wrought tour in support of Bowie’s 1987 studio album, Never Let Me Down: christened the Glass Spider tour, after one of the album’s showcased tracks, the venture was simultaneously a success and a fiasco. Though it is estimated that six million people attended performances throughout the tour, raking in roughly $86 million for the parties involved (thanks in part to sponsorship by PepsiCo, a decisively controversial move that would go on to provide a template for every large-scale touring act to follow), the Glass Spider tour was widely lamented by music critics as an overly-indulgent display of pomposity. Conversely, more open-minded critics displayed a willingness to read between the broadly painted lines of the tour’s dated production, in order to recognize the artistic intent hidden beneath the permed hair-dos and expensive props. Bowie himself appeared to be questioning the very reasons for his artistic continuity—a process of artistic disorientation that would follow him throughout his subsequent project as lead singer in Reeves Gabrels’s post-rock band, Tin Machine.

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U2 (from left to right: The Edge, Bono, Adam Clayton), as the subject of the 1988 film Rattle and Hum, directed by Phil Joanou. © 1988, Paramount Pictures.

Within this context, the dual phenomena of U2’s Rattle and Hum and Depeche Mode 101 seem to represent a turning point in the history of pop music: a point at which the interests of art and commerce converged most neatly, just before parting ways most decisively—the interests of commerce having emerged victorious, once and for all. And while the past 30 years have seen tours of much greater scale and ambition, one is hard-pressed to find moments of such decisively widespread cultural zeitgeist in music history books. The skeptical reader should keep in mind here that both of these concert films (the former directed by Phil Joanou) were major theatrical releases, which—alongside Prince’s equally innovative Sign O’ the Times concert film—paved the way for pop music documentaries as diverse as Madonna: Truth or DareDixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing, and Peter Bogdanovich’s Tom Petty documentary, Running Down a Dream. Along with Demme’s acclaimed film of the Talking Heads Stop Making Sense tour, and Scorsese’s film of The Last Waltz (released a decade prior), the two features in question can be read as a sort of end-of-the-road signpost in the evolution of pop music narratives in mainstream film. For since then, there have been no mass-distributed music films of commercial note to take a pop music figure as their subject—apart from Justin Bieber: Never Say NeverKaty Perry: Part of Me, and Glee: The 3D Concert Movie (it is worth noting, however, that independently-produced documentaries on more cult-ish music figures—such as Rodriguez, Fela Kuti, Nina Simone, Conny Plank, and Death: the band—are currently on the rise in art houses and on Netflix).

With all of this taken into consideration, one would be forgiven for asking: what ever happened to meaningful bombast? Did Bob Geldof’s (debateably) miscalculated Live Aid events signal the end of an era once marked by pop-rock grandiosity—opening the door for a new generation of self-righteous pop stars, whose boastful passion for fundraising is outweighed only by their passion for the public’s attention/approval? Did the increasing involvement of corporate interests (signaled by Bowie’s Pepsi-endorsed Glass Spider tour, later culminating with TicketMaster and major concert arenas—such as the aforementioned Pine Knob—mutating into vehicles for commercial advertisement) drown out the artistic interests that previously endeavored to exert total creative control over such endeavors? Or is it just that, at the end of the day, a culture of cynicism has finally won out? I suppose that only time will tell; but an educated guess might well lean in the direction of the last hypothesis.

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David Bowie once more sets the template for pop music protocol, when he accepted the sponsorship of PepsiCo during his 1987 tour in support of Never Let Me Down, christened The Glass Spider tour (May 30th to November 28th, 1987).

And this is (in part, at least) why moments such as a live rendition of the new Depeche Mode single, “Where’s the Revolution?”, carry such a startling resonance in 2017. For not only is the song itself perfectly suited for the socio-cultural themes defining our day and age; the mere fact of a major touring band resorting to such an earnest strain of cultural commentary presents a sound for sore ears. In hindsight one finds that, as the early post-Live Aid years gave way to the dawn of slacker-ism, grunge, and a newly commodified variety of hip-hop (frequently laced with lazy machismo and even lazier beat-programming), the notion of a singer-songwriter earnestly expressing concern about the state of the planet began to completely evaporate. Women in pop music became (even) more heavily fetishized, with the boy band phenomenon representing the homo-erotic counterpart of a plastic pop movement coming into full swing. In seeming retaliation to such vacuousness, “hard” pop bands (with acts like Green Day and Blink-182 at the softer side, and Slipknot/Limp Bizkit/Korn at the harder end of the spectrum) represented, in actuality, another side of the same coin. The start of this cultural trajectory might arguably be traced back to the pop art movement—the formal separation of sincerity from artistic expression—but there have since been erratic flickers of endeavored sincerity; like the Green Day/American Idiot craze that swept the nation in the early aughts, or the hard/soft dynamic of Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Alas, the former example carried with it a distinct aroma of Hot Topic prefab-ness, while the latter has struggled to find stable footing between a drive for artistic integrity and an expectation of commercial success—resulting in a slew of overly eclectic records with several high points, but little in the way of textual consistency.

Compare this to Dave Gahan conducting his umpteenth live rendition of the hit Depeche Mode single, “Enjoy the Silence,” fully trusting the audience to sing the first run-through of the chorus (without missing a beat or a lyric) as he simply holds the microphone above the roar of the crowd. Other contemporary artists might lay claim to some catchy singles, but such cultural “events” seem harder to come by with each passing day; and while there is a greater wealth of brand new, quality music for us to consume than ever before, none of it carries the same conferral of greatness, which was only made possible through an unspoken agreement: that the forces of art and commerce should continually battle and work out their differences within the top 40. Case in point: the most recent, worldwide U2 concert series—supporting the 30th anniversary of their 1987 masterwork, The Joshua Tree.

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“I want to run/I want to hide.” U2 performing “Where the Streets Have No Name” against an astonishingly widescreen backdrop of Anton Corbijn-directed cinematography, at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN (September 10th, 2017).

Among the litany of great studio recordings produced during the 20th century, few can lay claim to the sheer magnitude of factors that triggered the enormous success of this album: from the band’s on-going collaboration with acclaimed producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, to the engineering work of Flood, to the great kaleidoscope of American songwriting influences permeating the album’s 11 tracks, to the promotional album photographs snapped at Zabriskie Point by Anton Corbijn—right on down through the one-two-three punch of hit singles: “With Or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, and “Where the Streets Have No Name”—it is a massive understatement to remark that all the right elements collided to form this behemoth of pop majesty. Building on the vast, open sound palette first patented by Eno and Lanois on The Unforgettable FireThe Joshua Tree begins with a great fireworks display of sonic dynamism and never lets up, retaining a shimmer of splendor even in its quietest moments (“Running to Stand Still;” “Mothers of the Disappeared”). Performing the album live in its entirety, start to finish, may seem like a parlor trick or a novelty act to some; but for the millions who have attended a performance of this anniversary event (including myself) it likely represented so much more.

For how can you pin a reductive label on a cultural phenomenon that has captivated so many hearts and minds throughout the years: a record so overwhelmingly full of pathos and soaring melodies, that many (if not most) who attend its live performance find themselves spontaneously able to recall every note and lyric to every song—including such minutia as the spoken word piece in “Bullet the Blue Sky,” or the staccato wails of “raining” that line the climactic resolve to “One Tree Hill”? Personally, the experience brought to mind a worn-out cassette tape that once resided long-term in the tape deck of my beat-up Ford Probe, having been lovingly transferred from a vinyl copy of the record I had pulled out of a crate in a thrift store. The sound of the record—brilliantly engineered so that, even in the most depreciated format, and played on the most dilapidated of sound systems, those waves of synth and effected guitars couldn’t fail to wash over the listener, swallowing us up in the grandness of its enterprise. In the album’s official “Making of” documentary, Flood speaks of the production process in terms of it being “very different from anything I’d ever approached before. It was a first for so many things. The whole process was totally different… The type of sound they wanted for the record was very different from anything anybody had asked for: open, ambient, a real sense of space, of the environment you were in. Not normal requests.”

As it turned out, the sound of The Joshua Tree wound up being one of the most highly imitated sounds developed during the annals ’80s pop: its reverberations can be traced directly through Flood’s later work with PJ Harvey, The Smashing Pumpkins, New Order, and—most pointedly—Depeche Mode, having soon after produced their beyond-sensational breakthrough in 1990 (not to mention the sound of other arena-filling acts of the ’90s and aughts; such as Radiohead, Garbage, The Verve, and Coldplay, to name a few). But in the case of U2 and The Joshua Tree, the decision to crack the band’s sound wide open—incorporating entirely new spaces and textures—seemed to reflect more than just an aesthetic choice: indeed, a parallel can be drawn between this newfound openness, and the utterly non-cynical, total sincerity and dedication of the band itself. Producer Brian Eno defined this level of dedication in the same “Making of” doc as follows:

“I had got a real sense that this band was capable of making… something that was self-consciously spiritual to the point of being uncool, and I thought uncool was a very important idea then, because people were being very, very cool. Coolness is a certain kind of detachment from yourself; a certain defensiveness—in not exposing something—because it’s too easy to be shot down if you’re exposed. Of course, everyone was in the process of shooting U2 down. They were not favoured, even though they had a big public following, but critically they were thought to be rather ‘heart on their sleeves.'”

In other interviews, Eno traced this disconnect between the band and the popular trends surrounding them back to their national origins. In a 1994 interview, for instance, the producer reflected: “When you think about it… cool isn’t a notion that you’d often want to apply to the Irish, a people who brilliantly and easily satirize, elaborate and haggle and generally make short stories very long but who rarely exhibit the appetite for cultural disdain—deliberate non-involvement—for which the English pride themselves… It is this reckless involvement that makes the Irish terminally uncool. Cool people stay around the edges and observe the mistakes and triumphs of uncool people (and then write about them)” (quoted in Noel McLaughlin’s essay, “Eno, Ireland, and U2”). Regardless of its roots, the “terminally uncool” demeanor of a band like U2 is bound to carry with it implications as complex as the demeanor itself; for instance, many music critics—bound to an arbitrary code of “cool”ness (read: aloofness)—tend to keep a calculated distance, whereas more non-critically oriented listeners may find themselves flocking to their enormous sound like moths to a flame.

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U2 performing “Beautiful Day”—the first encore to follow their full live performance of The Joshua Tree at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Needless to say, the demographic makeup of a U2 concert audience is a mixed bag, with a marked contingent of “non-critically oriented listeners” (I commented in passing, just prior to the start of the show at the massive Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, that I’d never seen so many audience participants wearing the official tour shirt to the concert—a generally accepted faux pas among dedicated concert-goers). Just in front of us, two forty-something women clad in tight jeans and fancy blouses devoted a good half-hour of the show’s warm-up time to snapping a puzzling, unimaginative series of “selfie” photographs with their phones; now from the left angle, now from the right. As the headliner worked their way through a powerhouse of a set, I was further confounded by one of the two women’s insistence on standing perfectly still for the duration of the performance (including the slower numbers, which provoked more embittered attendees seated behind me to instruct “okay: it’s time to chill…”), occasionally raising a hesitant arm in an apparent attempt at emotional involvement—before finally deciding against it and returning to a stance of stoic semi-engagement. It dawned on me, during this shameless exercise in people-watching—a habit I’ve never been able to break totally free from at live concerts, despite my best intentions—that the band’s audience has likely grown more and more generic (and consequently, less and less musically-informed) as the years have advanced. Strangely enough, it would appear that a band once renowned for its emotional over-zealousness, has since become a huge draw for individuals wholly detached and removed from the pure, childlike love of music this band sought to foster from the very start. But here I digress…

As far as Yours Truly is concerned, the performance could hardly have been more emotionally involving, or more existentially absorbing. From the opening guitar lines of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” to the final refrain of the downbeat Achtung Baby anthem “One,” the performance was a wholly riveting and visceral exercise in what one might call “meaningful bombast.” For there was hardly an insincere moment to be had throughout the evening (barring Beck’s more irony-laden—at least, one hopes—rap-centric performance that comprised the event’s entr’acte); and I gladly count myself among the many attendees who caught themselves singing along to every song on the album proper, along with the earlier-era numbers they chose to open with, including the stunningly powerful “Bad”—my personal favorite U2 song.


The band’s intro to the album’s explosive culmination, “Exit,” was smartly paired with an image well-known to movie lovers: a pair of clenched fists flanking the stage screen—with the letters “l-o-v-e” tattooed across one set of knuckles, and “h-a-t-e” across the other. A film clip preceding Corbijn’s re-imagined visual (inspired by Robert Mitchum’s malevolent preacher in the 1955 Charles Laughton film, Night of the Hunter) shows a beady-eyed huckster addressing a town on the subject of a great wall he plans to build to keep bad people off the streets. Earlier in the night, the band’s lead singer had subtly reconfigured a lyric in “Sunday Bloody Sunday”—from “when fact is fiction and TV reality” to “when fact is fiction and reality TV.” Contrasted with Bono’s plea throughout “Exit,” to want to “believe in the hands of love,” this early bit of foreshadowing presents one of many arrows throughout the evening pointing to the night’s emotionally pivotal close (“One”). (As for the Joshua Tree denouement, it lived up to its reputation as a truly epic showdown between Edge’s painterly guitar, Larry Mullen’s loud-soft percussion, and Adam Clayton’s deceptively versatile bass lines—weaving in and out of unison to form one of the band’s most dramatic/cinematic numbers in their entire repertoire.)

On more than one occasion, the event called to mind the Depeche Mode concert in Detroit just a couple weeks prior; not merely for the slew of music-cultural associations enumerated above, but because the pure sincerity (or sincere purity?) of both performances stands in such stark contrast to just about everything that remains of pop music. When Dave Gahan led the crowd in an acapalla sing-along to the contagiously hummable chorus of “Everything Counts” (in a goosebump-inducing reprise of the grand finale to 101), it seemed to have been drawn from the same well of energy that fueled Bono’s leading the crowd in Lucas Oil Stadium through the gospel-inflected chorus of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” When Gahan and Gore introduced their setlist with the hauntingly topical themes of “Going Backwards” (a song about “turning back our history,” “piling on the miseries,” and “counting all the casualties”), it paralleled the tense, patriotically-tinted paranoia of “Bullet the Blue Sky” (“and through the walls you hear the city groan/and outside is America…“). Unlike certain younger, more precious and precocious performers (whose names I will refrain from mentioning here, for fear of this turning into a piece of disparagement, instead of a piece in praise of a lost art), the age of these two remarkably active bands serves to enhance the convincing power of the messages buried in the texts of their songs, or hiding in plain view across their surfaces. A song as majestic as “Red Hill Mining Town” is hereby rendered even more powerful through our awareness that there are few (if any) songwriters of Bono’s age, at the time the song was recorded (which, by my count, would be 27), writing anything in the vicinity of its stately elegance.

Arguably, it is this difference—more than any other outstanding aspect of these bands’ tremendously moving and awe-inspiring tours—which sets their achievements (past and present) aside from those of the up-and-comers (and-now-they’re-goners) numbered in the contemporary pop charts. For here we have two bands from the last days of an era we might as well refer to now as “pure pop:” an era that began with Sam Cooke and The Shirelles, but burned out around the time of the debut albums by The Stone Roses and Oasis. Which isn’t to say there are no sincere pop artists left standing; but rather that the medium itself has become so contaminated with self-conscious irony and advertising obligations, it can no longer embody the wholly innocent open-mindedness it once revolved around.

And yet, walking back to our car at the close of Depeche Mode’s Detroit performance, we spot (for the second time) a pair of twenty-something hair metal kids losing their shit to a perplexing setlist booming from their truck’s stereo system—a mix that betrays no critical discrimination between The Doobie Brothers and Def Leppard. The possibility of such open-mindedness can’t help but bring a smile to one’s face. Here, I could even present myself as a case in point: having turned 30 during the same year as the U2 album I saw performed live the other night, my perspective is a generation removed from the folks who first came to know and love this music. Consequently, I can discern no un-surmountable barriers between the oft-perceived coolness of Brian Eno’s solo work, and the loud vulnerability of U2’s arena-filling anthems. They both seem (to me, at least) possessed of the same innocent open-mindedness that gave birth to the vernacular of pop music. Along with the more darkly tinted vulnerability of Depeche Mode, they embody a sort of sensual integrity that seems consistently lost in the shuffle of our increasingly incidental, soundbyte-streaming culture.

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Depeche Mode performing David Bowie’s “Heroes,” as an encore to their Spirit tour setlist in Detroit.

Digging in the recent confines of my memory, I return to that stellar performance at the Pine Knob amphitheater—and that deceptively passive incitement to “snap out of it” couched within the new Depeche Mode single (“Where’s the Revolution?”). In hindsight, it seems to me less a call to arms, and more a call to re-awaken one’s emotional engagement with the human condition. Just as Bono’s closing tributes to influential women throughout the annals of history (accompanied by the achingly beautiful high point in Achtung Baby, “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)”) read less as an act of political confrontation, and more as a genuine gesture of outward compassion to the plight of humankind; something that we, so accustomed to the cynical overtones of 45’s America (and to the passivity that produced it) may feel challenged to accept at face value.

Nonetheless, such compassion is there for the taking, spread throughout the global tours of two monumental bands who refuse to give in to the temptations of self-effacing irony—insisting instead on the primal emotional forces that propelled them to crossover success in the first place. Like John, Paul, George, and Ringo; or Keith, Charlie, and Mick; or Bruce; or Prince. Or Mavis; Nina; Marvin; and Joni. Or Stevie, Christine, and Lindsey; or Chaka; or Whitney. Like the Starman/Blackstar of pop music himself, whose “Heroes” was so lovingly and movingly recited by Dave Gahan at the closure of the band’s Pine Knob setlist (easily the finest vocal performance the frontman delivered that night; as though he had set aside a special reserve of emotional energy for this tribute, set to the simple, startling image of a black flag waving against a gray sky). At one point, Bono inserted an unexpectedly moving tribute to the late heathen of pop, as well—remarking that “nothing has changed… everything has changed.” The phrase could hardly ring truer.

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Lucas Oil Stadium fills up with expectant fans of that most successful Irish pop band, touring their most successful studio achievement.

Identifying the muses of Dirty/Clean’s ulter nation album and video project.

“Women of the world, take over
‘Cause if you don’t
The world
Will come
To an end
And it won’t take long.”
– Jim O’Rourke (from “Women of the World,” off the LP Eureka)

In the following interview, Josh Egeland questions Josh England on the subject of the latest Dirty/Clean album (ulter nation), and the music videos that have been produced in support of it. The interview took place Saturday, August 12th, over coffee and muffins. Questions asked and answers given were transcribed as closely as possible, with punctuation and parenthetical notations added for editorial purposes.

* * *

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Josh Egeland (je) interviews Josh England (JE) on the topic of Dirty/Clean’s ulter nation project.

je: So I guess we can start by reviewing the videos.

JE: Okay.

je: How would you respond to allegations of plagiarism, pillaging, or creative appropriation?

JE: That’s your leading question?

je: I think it’s a fair one.

JE: Well, when you put it that way, I guess the videos are kind of plagiaristic. They do pillage from films far greater than the music on the record, and therefore represent a form of creative appropriation. So I guess I would respond by pleading guilty.

je: So you don’t personally perceive a problem?

JE: I can understand why it might be perceived as ethically problematic by some… but no, I don’t have a problem with it. Have you been to the movies much lately?

je: Can’t say that I have…

JE: …It doesn’t appear that we’re missing much. I’ve seen a lot of contemporary film-makers not struggling hard enough to discover the possibilities their predecessors had explored decades prior. Which wouldn’t be an issue, if they’d only discover possibilities of their own. But there just doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of possibility to take in at the box office… it’s all so pre-determined now, especially the CGI stuff. The way I see it, the movies I’m “quoting” in these videos—possibly the more well-known ones, even–they’re not as widely recognized or embraced by the upcoming generation as they were by my generation, and the generations before mine. I suppose, in a way, there’s a relief to be had in the notion that younger generations can discard the cultural baggage of their ancestors; in another way, it seems to reflect a broader trend of major attention deficits. I’m not delusional enough to convince myself that, by featuring these clips in my obscure little music videos, I’ll bring about some big revival of cinephilia. But I guess I see this less as pillaging, and more as showcasing: highlighting the possibilities of a craft, which currently appears addicted to its own degradation.

je: But there are still good movies being made, no?

JE: Absolutely! But as with any number of pursuits in our advanced technological age, the butter seems to be spread out rather thinly. It’s like this remark of Brian Eno’s, from an interview with some British magazine earlier this year: the problem isn’t that there aren’t good records being made anymore, but rather, there’s too much good music out there, and no honest distribution system in place to facilitate a genuine zeitgeist (as opposed to a strategized one). But with movies, I think we’re far worse off. It’s like we went from a generation of film brats, all scrambling to fill the director’s seat, to a generation that doesn’t appear to have any real perspective on the historical weight of the craft itself.

je: And you think you’re in some kind of position to address this perceived oversight?

JE: I don’t pretend to be an expert on the matter, no. But I’ve spent more hours digesting movies than most people spend digesting food in their lifetime. Maybe that’s what seems to be missing… true love of the craft, as opposed to love of one’s own style; there’s a lot of that going around now. Did you see La La Land?

je: Yes.

JE: Case in point.

je: It wasn’t a great movie, I’ll give you that. But the intention behind it seemed noble.

JE: And that’s the problem. There’s nothing more detrimental to a good movie than a self-imposed aura of nobility.

je: But how is what you’re doing here any different? I detect a hint of self-righteous nobility in your complaint…

JE: I’m not trying to reproduce the feel of a bygone era by running off a photocopy and filling it in with new faces.

je: But you did cover a rather early OMD song on this latest Dirty/Clean record, didn’t you?

JE: That was a very personal… a very important song to me. Not just as a musician, but as a person. If you listen, there’s nothing really stylized in what we did. Our cover is straightforward and fairly removed: I made a very deliberate, very mindful decision to not come across like I was cashing in on a classic. I hope I succeeded; I mean, if it had been successful, I would’ve been embarrassed… Which is in part why it’s tacked on at the tail end of the record. At one time, it wasn’t even going to be on the record.

Official music video for “Souvenir”—a cover of the 1981 Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark single—directed by Jennifer Taylor.

je: So if you don’t view your project in line with stylistic homage, what category would you place it in? Or is there a category you feel comfortable with?

JE: I personally view our video experiment more in line with DJ culture, and other sorts of post-modern music and video production. When you think back on it, and despite its detractors, the early days of MTV saw the rise of several different approaches: straight-faced, lip-synced performance clips; “literal” music videos; and those experimental, sometimes disengaged montages of found footage. Have you seen Devo’s music video for their early song, “Mongoloid”?

je: I think so. It’s kind of literal, isn’t it?

JE: It is—but it’s also made of found footage, so it’s pretty abstract. And that’s what makes it work, as a video. It’s the surrealism behind it: the message beneath the surface. If something “found” can coincide so directly with the message in the song, then the message can’t be all that original in the first place, can it? It’s a concession of redundancy. It’s about not pretending that what you have to say is entirely original, but accepting that it’s been said before; and its strength lies in its repetition.

je: Let’s move on and talk about your selection process, in putting these videos together. How do you decide what clips are going to accompany each song?

JE: Mostly by intuition, which is how most of the songs were written. In fact, a lot of the films quoted throughout these videos provided fairly specific inspiration for the songs.

je: I imagine you’re referring to “Red Desert,” “Eclipse,” and “I.D. d’une Femme”?

JE: All of them, really. But yes—those all carry film titles in their name, so the influence of those movies could have been more prominent.

je: I can’t help but notice that the women in these films are showcased more prominently than the male protagonists, in looking at your videos. Was that deliberate?

JE: Yes and no.

je: [expectant pause]

JE: Well, to the filmmakers’ credit—all of whom, in reference to the clips selected, were men—women were showcased rather prominently in their movies. I mean, god: Monica Vitti and Antonioni… can you think of a more visually co-dependent relationship in the history of movies, between muse and director?

je: [pensive pause] Robert Altman and Shelley Duvall; Fassbinder and Schygulla; Godard and Anna Karina—and later, Anne Wiazemsky; John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands; Lynch and Laura Dern…

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David Lynch and his long-time muse, Laura Dern, appearing side-by-side in Twin Peaks: The Return. 2017 © Showtime Networks.

JE: Godard and Cassavetes both cast their wives, which is a different dynamic altogether. Altman utilized Duvall in supporting roles, often—strong ones, no doubt. And Fassbinder used an entire theater troupe’s worth of women actors, more or less as frequently as he used Hanna Schygulla; she just got paid more. Lynch has a fairly fetishistic, late-era Buñuel thing going on these days… Have you seen how he’s cast Chrysta Bell in the new Twin Peaks?

je: There is a bit of the proverbial dirty old man in him…

JE: But at least he’s upfront and transparent about it: like the Mael brothers. I’ll take that over these broad gestures of pseudo-feminist empowerment vis-a-vis male writers looking to get laid, which is what we appear to be seeing a lot of these days.

je: Let’s get back to Antonioni.

JE: Certainly. What was the question again?

je: Was it a deliberate choice, for you to showcase Monica Vitti more prominently than, say, Marcello Mastroianni or Gabriele Ferzetti?

JE: It was a deliberate choice insofar as my eye instinctively gravitated towards the scenes with Vitti, Moreau, Maria Schneider, and Daniela Silverio dominating the frame. When you watch those films—the alienation trilogy, The Passenger, and Identification of a Woman—you’re basically just waiting for the women to come back into the picture, whenever they’re not in the scene. It’s actually the entire premise in Identification of a Woman, just as it is in L’Avventura. Only Mastroianni and Jack Nicholson come anywhere close to competing with the women for our attention, as viewers. And they still fall short some of the time, in my opinion.

je: But Jack Nicholson is the protagonist in The Passenger, and Mastroianni and Moreau play the leads in La Notte. I mean, isn’t Monica Vitti only in that one party scene?

JE: Yes—the one that Pauline Kael lambasted, in multiple reviews. Have you read her take?

je: I think so…

JE: If I’m recalling correctly, she referred to Vitti’s performance as a failed parody of a Hollywood glamour girl.

je: Ouch. I take it you disagree?

JE: I don’t know that I disagree, so much as I never gave it much thought from that angle. I mean, Monica Vitti is so captivating as a performer… maybe what Kael responded to so negatively in her performances was the way that she routinely sabotages, or at least calls into question, Antonioni’s over-reaching authorship of those movies. I’ve never quite been able to determine whether she just wasn’t a very good actor, and couldn’t execute her character the way it was written, or if she was a really amazing actor, trafficking in deliberate obtuseness. I think that’s part of what makes those movies so intriguing to this day; because there are other ways in which they have not aged well.

je: I take it you’re referring to that one scene in L’Eclisse

JE: That’s certainly a prime example! And in a perverse sort of way, it’s a testament to the unstated brilliance of Vitti’s performance: you can’t quite tell whether she is personally oblivious to the culturally abhorrent implications of donning blackface, or if she’s doing a really spot-on parody of an oblivious, bougie white woman. Either way, the scene itself is lamentable, and it probably spoils an otherwise great movie for many viewers.

je: While we’re on the subject of racial representation, how would you respond if someone criticized your project as Euro-centric?

JE: I suppose I’d have to say that it is. But isn’t it sort of obvious? I mean, the CD packaging has more Italian text on the cover than it has English. But like I’ve already written and spoken about in previous interviews, that component of the project pertains very specifically to my experiences growing up in Europe, and not experiencing my homeland until many years later. I’m fairly certain that if I had reached out farther than what I’m familiar with, geographically speaking, it would’ve seemed about as forced and incoherent as one of Monica Vitti’s malapropisms.

Official music video for “Red Desert,” showcasing more of the muses who provided inspiration for the songs on ulter nation. (More muses featured in the videos for “Eclipse” and “Into the Night (Pt. I)”).

je: Let’s talk about the most recent music video, for “Red Desert.”

JE: Sure thing. What do you want to know?

je: For starters, I notice that your credits in the video description highlight all the women in the video, but you neglect to make mention of the men. And it does seem to me that Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy [in Tarkovsky’s Stalker] and Richard Harris [in Antonioni’s Red Desert] share quite a bit of screen time with the women in your video.

JE: True, but that’s beside the point. “Red Desert” is one video for which I would definitively answer “yes” to your previous question—about how deliberate my “casting” of these women might have been.

je: What are you trying to convey through this gesture?

JE: I’m not sure that I’m really trying to convey anything in particular. The video is less a statement than a summoning.

je: Not sure I follow you…

JE: It’s most obvious in the Marianne Faithfull clips from that odd little Kenneth Anger movie, Lucifer Rising. And the scenes with Monkey, Stalker’s daughter in the Tarkovsky film.

je: You’re referring to the supernatural, then?

JE: Not just the supernatural in general, but the supernatural power of women in particular, throughout the annals of history. While working on the songs for ulter nation, I was reading a lot—which I find to be very helpful, creatively—and I was struck by this chapter Marianne Faithfull has published about her experiences with Kenneth Anger. It was for her second autobiography, called Dreaming My Dreams. Have you read it?

je: I believe so.

JE: It’s a great read. I think I like it even better than the first one. There’s this chapter where she recounts the full story of how she was living on this wall in Soho, strung out on heroin, and Kenneth Anger showed up and invited her to fly with him to Egypt to play [mythical figure] Lilith in one of his experimental movies. She did the part, but then realized, as she was crawling through a Muslim graveyard with Max Factor blood dripping off of her, that maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. She paints a more broadly desecrating picture of Kenneth in that first biography, but enough time seems to have passed by the time she revisits the story in her second book… she seems a little less one-sided on the matter. But she still seems affected by the fact that he placed some lame little curse on her, after she published that first tell-all.

je: She has had an awfully challenging few decades since then…

JE: Yeah, but she’s survived, hasn’t she? I mean, tomorrow isn’t a given thing, and the reaper will eventually pay us all a visit. But getting back to my initial point, I think Marianne Faithfull is a testament to the resiliency of humankind—and of women, specifically. I wanted to highlight that in the video for “Red Desert.” It’s a song that takes, as inspiration, my perception of women as having been trapped, all throughout history, in a man-made machine fueled by this primal fear of what might happen if they were unleashed. Like in Red Desert, where this incredibly engaging woman lives out a perfectly unnecessary, meaningless existence—in a landscape that’s been depleted of natural resources and coated in smog. Looking back, I think a lot of really great critics, like Pauline Kael, voiced their anger and disdain for this movie out of an incredulity that such a premise could ever come to fruition. It may be one of the first truly convincing, fully-realized dystopian films… a sort of antidote to Buñuel’s utopian vision of Robinson Crusoe.

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Monica Vitti rules the screen in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964). © renewed 2010, Criterion Collection.

je: [pause] Yeah, I can’t think of anything made prior to it that is comparable, at least in that regard. There’s a lot of dystopian motifs at play in the works of German Expressionists, but few are convincing from the standpoint of realism. And in looking at the clips you used in the music video, it does seem as though Antonioni’s film carries a pretty startling visual resonance—considering our current cultural and ecological circumstances.

JE: It totally resonates today. Because here we are thinking, “how much worse will things get, if, or when the effects of climate change become irreversible and totally relentless?” The movie itself came out around the same time the worldwide ecological movement started gaining momentum. You know, those years following the ravages of World War II, when the costs of environmental disregard started showing. But it seems to me there was a lot of complacency at the time—even within the movement. Which isn’t to say people didn’t really care about the environment, only that folks couldn’t easily appreciate the full ramifications of what all was at stake. Not as easily as we can now.

je: But aren’t ecological issues universal? I mean, they affect men just as eminently as…

JE: …women, and children; and cats, dogs; bees and plants. Of course they do. But we seem to be perched at a point in history where progressive politics—if they actually are going to persevere, and don’t just crumble in on themselves—will face a self-imposed choice between identity politics and environmental politics. And I sense an inherent danger at this intersection: that by quarantining social issues in order to focus on the “bigger picture,” we may still lose the war, and our social problems will only have gotten worse.

je: …Having lost the battle and the war simultaneously.

JE: Exactly. I mean, if we can’t all even brings ourselves peaceably live together on this planet, why try to save it?

je: And conversely, if we can’t bring ourselves to save the planet, why bother living peaceably together?

JE: They’re mutually dependent clauses. I think that’s something Antonioni implied, intentionally or inadvertently, in the text of Red Desert. The implications of the dilemma are totally discomfiting, and I can appreciate why someone like Pauline Kael would be miffed by a premise this bleak. When you consider the potential for nurturing and painting the environment you want to live in through artistic expression, it’s as if Antonioni did the exact opposite, while at the same time displaying a sort of willingness to put up with this uninhabitable world he created. Like Monica Vitti, he leaves us wondering about the degree of intended irony in his performance, as director. But deep down, I believe he was rooting for humanity. I think if he had been a total cynic, he would have just filmed buildings and left the people out altogether.

je: I believe Fassbinder made the same argument, in response to those allegations of misogyny: that a true misogynist wouldn’t even feature women in their movie.

JE: Yeah… looking back on that one, it’s an over-simplified retort, but it still rings true. I mean, I think the most popular form of misogyny these days is of the “I want women to exist, but only as pregnancy vessels” variety; you know, the whole Handmaid’s Tale, Mike Pence sort of thing.

je: There’s also a troubled history within the gay community…

JE: Yes. Men seem to be a recurring problem in this picture, don’t they? I mean, there have been truly militant, men-hating women throughout history…

je: You mean Valerie Solanas?

JE: Yeah, that whole SCUM Manifesto clique. But historically, most of the world’s sexist rancor seems to come from the other side of the gender spectrum—the side with the most inherited economic power.

je: An interesting point, but I fear we’re getting side-tracked. Let’s get back to that bit about summoning…

JE: Okay, shoot.

je: What do you see as the relationship between Monkey, Marianne, Julianne Moore, Monica Vitti, and Jane Bowles (as played by Debra Winger)?

JE: Apart from the fact that they all acted as my muses during this project, I think they are all women whose presence on-screen seems to summon an other-ness, an untapped energy—something beyond everyday, superficial gestures of power.

je: Please explain.

JE: Take Marianne, for instance. I mean, she was at (or near) her very lowest in that Kenneth Anger film. But she steals the movie, when you look at it today. All the other expressions of mystical occultism in the picture seem pretty hokey now, but she was an outsider from the start, and she carries that with her throughout her scenes. Even as a homeless woman strung out on heroin, she was able to project something way more powerful than all the other kitschy, ponderous gestures of magic in Anger’s movies. When she sobered up and started putting out these wonderful records, I think it became apparent just how under-estimated she had been, creatively speaking, in her formative years. Back when Kenneth Anger could be held up as this great, subversive film-maker, but Marianne could only be seen as a rich, spoiled junkie. I mean, that was hardly ever the public’s perception of Mick, and he had far more auspicious beginnings…

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Mick and Marianne, cotton candy in hand; photographed in the late 1960s by Jonathan Stone (date and location unknown).

je: And then there was the whole “Sister Morphine” debacle…

JE: Yeah. But they worked that one out eventually: I think there were some pretty pragmatic implications at play in her exclusion from the original songwriting credit—something to do with the Stones’ publishing arrangement. But the outcome didn’t reflect the nuances at play. She wasn’t really perceived to be a creative contributor to the Stones by most people, at the time.

je: So by featuring only her scenes from Lucifer Rising in the “Red Desert” video, are you attempting to restore some kind of artistic merit to her legacy?

JE: I don’t know that I would go that far… I mean, hasn’t she already done that for herself, several times over? She’s that rare sort of artist, whose records just seem to get better as years go by.

je: Good one.

JE: The pun wasn’t intentional. Horses and High Heels and Give My Love to London are truly amazing records.

je: And Before the Poison. And Kissin’ Time

JE: And Vagabond Ways: her reading of “Tower of Song”…

je: We’re getting side-tracked again.

JE: Rightly so.

je: Let’s talk about the other women in the video—Jane Bowles and Julianne Moore, for instance.

JE: Sure. Jane Bowles was this amazingly ahead-of-her-time fiction writer, whose work was largely eclipsed at the time by the popularity of her husband’s writing.

je: Paul Bowles.

JE: Yes. He hit it pretty big with The Sheltering Sky, but Jane had published her novel, Two Serious Ladies, some years prior. And Two Serious Ladies is arguably a much smarter novel, and maybe more prescient, in terms of literary evolution. It’s this wonderful, counter-hedonistic tale of two women vacationing together in Panama: they basically go searching for squalor, and then wind up in all these unnecessarily dangerous situations.

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Jane Bowles, photographed for Vogue magazine in 1946.

je: I’ve read it. It’s a very different sort of book, I’ll give you that.

JE: I think it’s one of John Waters’ favorites.

je: That would make sense.

JE: As for Julianne Moore, the scenes featured in our video are from a movie she did with Todd Haynes in the ’90s, called Safe.

je: A deeply unsettling movie-going experience, if ever there was one.

JE: It’s a challenging movie, to be sure. But it’s brilliantly subversive.

je: As I recall, you never really find out what caused her character’s illness, or whether it was psycho-somatically induced.

JE: Exactly. Like Picnic at Hanging Rock; or those really abstract noirs, like Laura. But it’s also subversive in its portrayal gender dynamics, and its dismantling of character stereotypes. For instance, there’s this therapist at the desert resort she goes to, played by Peter Friedman. When you first discover that he has HIV/AIDS, you’re naturally compelled to sympathize with him, as a character. I mean, Safe came out just two years after Jonathan Demme taught movie-goers that individuals living with AIDS are still people: at the time, that was a pretty radical idea to be conveyed through mainstream channels.

je: Through Tom Hanks, no less!

JE: Exactly! Even though he’d done Bosom Buddies and Bachelor Party, he’d earned a pretty straight-laced, non-delinquent reputation by the time of Philadelphia. And that performance set in motion a shift in public perception, in viewing people who live with HIV/AIDS. Hanks’s performance provoked viewers to sympathize, but in a really pitiful way; which I guess is the first step towards developing empathy for the plight of others, but it barely scratches the surface.

je: I think the proximity in time, between Demme’s film and the epidemic that wiped out the gay community in so many American cities, played a pretty significant role in the movie’s sentimentalized codes.

JE: I can only imagine how fresh those wounds must have been… But I also think there were some apparent detriments in the selection of Hanks, and in his subsequent characterization of Andrew Beckett. It wound up a little stilted in the direction of talking down to your audience. It also seems, in some ways, to echo that terrible phrase, “the deserving poor:” Hanks was seen by many at the time as “the deserving homo.” But this openly queer filmmaker [Todd Haynes] came along just two years later, subverting a fairly recently developed audience expectation with the character of Peter, who has the same illness but isn’t entirely sympathetic. Suddenly, the audience has to confront this culturally normalized, cognitive fallacy: the ridiculous idea that people living with illnesses—and specifically, individuals living with HIV/AIDS—are by default pitiful and apologetic.

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Julianne Moore as Carol White, the confined protagonist of Todd Haynes’s early masterwork, Safe (1995). © Sony Pictures Classics.

je: Wouldn’t you say that Moore’s character comes across as pitiful at times?

JE: For sure! But it’s what you read into it; what you project, as a viewer. If you study her performance, which is a tour de force, you’ll notice she doesn’t really do a whole lot, in terms of positive character reinforcement. She’s just this slow-moving negative space, incapable of finding fulfillment within the shitty environment she’s entrapped by. And Peter winds up being this sort of oppressive male figure—flying in the face of what we’ve been conditioned to expect; especially when you consider that the author is a gay man.

je: What about Monkey, the daughter in Stalker?

JE: Like Marianne Faithfull in Lucifer Rising, she’s the real star of that movie, if you ask me.

je: Not a convincing assessment, if one were to judge by screen time. She appears in just a fraction of the movie’s three-hour running length.

JE: Screen time isn’t entirely relevant when considering who’s the star of a picture. Who do you see as the star in Blade Runner?

je: Harrison Ford[?]

JE: See, that’s where you’re wrong. It’s Rutger Hauer’s movie: Harrison Ford’s detective is only there—and I mean this narratively as well as interpretively—to lead you to Roy Batty. Who is, like Julianne and Monica’s characters, an entrapped outsider.

Official music video for “Into the Night (Pt. II),” featuring the entrapped outsider of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982): Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer).

je: As far as I can recall, however, Monkey isn’t much of an “entrapped” figure in Stalker.

JE: It is implied that she’s living with a physical disability. In this way, she’s entrapped by the limitations of her movement. Which she later succeeds in compensating for—or overcompensating for—through telepathy. I mean, if you really break it down, the girl who plays Monkey in Stalker makes the entire movie: visuals aside, I find the journey with the three men kind of tedious at times—which I’m sure was intentional on Tarkovsky’s part. But as far as entertainment goes, the movie succeeds because it saves the payoff for that very last scene. And Monkey is the payoff.

je: You certainly get a lot of mileage out of that scene in your video.

JE: It’s just an incredible piece of finished film, and I couldn’t pull myself away from it in the editing stage. And Natasha Abramova totally sells it: the magic of the scene; the mystery.

je: She looks kind of bored.

JE: Well, as with your reading of Julianne Moore, that’s just a projection. She doesn’t have to project a specific thought or idea in the scene, because all the scene seems to require is her presence—her aura. Like Marina Abramović, or Joan Crawford, Abramova’s presence is so far greater than the limitations of the medium. I think a lot of men who are filmmakers scramble to bottle this essence within the vessel of their movie—not always malevolently, mind you—but so often we’re left wanting more than what they were able, or willing to capture.

© 2010 Scott Ruddwww.scottruddphotography.com scott.rudd@gmail.com

Marina Abramović, being present (from her 2010 installation, The Artist Is Present).

je: So it sounds like this focus on women may have been more intentional than you led me to believe at first.

JE: Could be, I don’t know. Does it really matter?

je: In a sense, I think it does. I mean, don’t you think that restoring women’s perspectives within the arts is a job best done…

JE: By women? If we’re going to state the obvious, this entire project amounts to nothing more than a fledgling attempt at expressing my view of the world we live in.

je: Glad to hear you’re not posing as a provocateur. That would’ve been embarrassing for us both.

JE: If I’m trying to prove a point through this project, it’s how the history of women in film–which is chronically troubled by cases of women being sexualized and abused; having to adopt men’s names, just to get the writing credit they’d earned as a woman; not getting to express their creative vision with the same sort of unrestricted leeway granted their male counterparts—is frequently a history of confinement. Which echoes the history of womankind. There’ve been all these great performances, and films made by women throughout history; but we’re left wondering just how [emph. added] much more illuminating these works could’ve been if the power deferential in our society weren’t so unevenly distributed along gender lines.

je: Isn’t that a fairly broad statement, artistically speaking?

JE: It’s broad, because there’s a broader truth in it. But there is another, more specific truth that I’m trying to comprehend in all this: and that’s the growing absence of subversiveness in the arts. That seems, to me, a bona fide cultural problem right now.

je: How so?

JE: Well, for starters, it’s made for a pretty lame and increasingly confined reality, as of late. Nobody seems to be making any real waves, unless they engage in acts of brutal violence, or sacrifice themselves at the reality television altar.

je: Have you considered that may just be the cost of contemporary comfort? I mean, with all the wealth and the luxury we’ve acquired in our society, there seems to be less and less of a call for subversiveness.

JE: That is a factor, no doubt about it. But it doesn’t seem to entirely account for the bigger problem, either. After all, income inequality is at an all-time high; increasingly consolidated corporations continue to own and buy up everything in sight. There’s plenty for people to be upset about in the socio-political arena, yet all of it—the instigators, the responders, the counter-attacks—seems trapped in this disorienting veneer of reality television. And all of our movies seem to be paraphrasing some kind of past, whether actual or non-existent: they’re either nostalgia pieces or superhero remakes, a lot of them taking place during the time of the “greatest generation.” And I’m not saying it’s all bad by default, but it’s getting kinda old; and the redundancy only serves to draw one’s attention to how much money they always feel compelled to spend, the second and third time around…

je: But doesn’t social unrest often breed nostalgia and escapism, as an alternative to dealing head-on with the real issues?

JE: For sure! And comfort is the antithesis of anarchy. But I think the level of complacency we’re seeing is basically a direct extension of our technological comfort, as opposed to reflecting our essential creature comforts. Which is fairly new, in evolutionary terms. I mean, I imagine there must be a lot of people out there who, if they were forced to choose between clothing or shelter, and having a smartphone—they’d take the phone.

je: That might provide the basis for an interesting study…

JE: It would, but I don’t think people really want to know the answer. We’re all afraid to admit how much we’ve been afflicted by technological addiction; and it’s been rapidly changing the way we all think, feel, and communicate with each other. It’s also changed the way we view one another—either strengthening or challenging our perceptions of each other. For instance, there was that moment of shock, when the breakdown of voters in the 2016 election came out, and we learned that a majority of white women voted for this disgusting, misogynistic caricature that we now have to live with for four years.

je: That was rather alarming.

JE: It was… But then I was equally alarmed by how quickly people turned around and criticized women for a tragedy that’s been playing itself out for centuries now: the tragedy of people being told not to be themselves, over and over, to the point where they start following the negative instruction. And it’s all kinds of people: women, gay people, trans-gendered people, people of color… In a way, I think mainstream progressivism is frequently culpable of a similar offense—only from the more informed end of the spectrum, and in a more constructive fashion: they often tell people how to speak, how to act. Which isn’t the best approach, either.

je: A rose by another name?

JE: Not really. I mean, there’s no comparing the fascistic, idiotic, and reactionary rhetoric of the present-day right wing, to the Lean Cuisine progressivism of the present-day left. But taking into account the advanced technology we’ve been armed and mobilized with, it’s become that much easier to convince millions of people to fall in line: to stop thinking for themselves and to silence their own subversive thoughts—which is even less arduous, for the powers that be, than forcing them into silence. It’s like that thing Pasolini said in one of those late interviews, around the time he made Salò: that bit about politicians displaying a tolerance as vast as it is false.

je: Like that picture—the one with 45 waving the rainbow flag…

JE: Exactly! And look how many gay men fell for it. I mean, it’s sad and disappointing, but it’s also a reminder of the overarching human problem at play here. I mean, identity politics are so prominent and so profoundly important right now, and there’s no reason to downplay them. But there’s also the broader consideration that human minds are being bought and sold every day by algorithms and advertisements: and most of the time, we’re totally oblivious to it.

je: Like all the people whose votes were bought by savvy researchers at Cambridge Analytica.

JE: …Or the consumers who only want to see movies or buy records—that is, if they still spend money on music—when they have a certain rating on Rotten Tomatoes, or have earned a certain baseline of shares and likes from their friends on social media. Which is so weird to me, because there’s this unprecedented access to the widest array of media on the internet, and yet the majority of consumers appear to be stuck inside the same handful of pre-determined pathways; whether it’s the Huffington Post, Breitbart, Vice, Marc Maron, or the guy with the big glasses who reviews music on YouTube. Not that I have a problem with Marc Maron; he seems like a really nice guy.

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Still from Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi. © renewed 2012, Criterion Collection.

je: But wouldn’t you say there’s a more eclectic range of content and feedback on the internet, than there used to be in print?

JE: In quantifiable terms, yes. But you wouldn’t guess it by glancing through the first dozen or so search results. We’ve gone from one extreme to the other—from not having enough options to having too many options. And as a society, we’ve failed to establish any kind of real balance in our information hierarchy. It’s the prophecy of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, fulfilled: a “life out of balance.” We can all see how it’s resulted in a lot of lowest common denominator communication—along with millions of people rehashing the same ideas over and over, not recognizing how they’ve been outmoded or disproven on any number of prior occasions. It all seems so tedious. I can only hope the previously foreseen possibilities of a one-way internet model appear less enticing to those who developed it, now that the worst of these possibilities are being actualized on a minute-by-minute basis.

je: What would you say are the positive possibilities that aren’t being actualized, artistically speaking?

JE: Honestly, I think the best we can hope for within the Berners-Lee system—as opposed to the Ted Nelson system, which would’ve been two-way, and would’ve preserved context—is post-modernist pastiche. It’s the only school of contemporary art that’s ironic enough to match the confused, constrictive implications of the World Wide Web. I mean, post-modernists used to get criticized in a lot of art circles—maybe they still do—for closing themselves off to more “genuine” modes of communication, and behaving as though irony were the only viable tone of creative communication. Then there were filmmakers, like Lynch and Almodóvar, who started pushing the limits of post-modernism in their movies—channeling this fairly surreal, but not-totally-insincere sort of melodrama that nearly took the medium to a new level, artistically speaking. I mean, we still have yet to live up to the possibilities revealed by Godard and Kieslowski; even Ophuls. But considering the state of the arts in 2017—not to mention the state of arts criticism—I’d settle for a revival of post-modernist irony at this point. Hell: I’d settle for just about any clearly stated artistic theory in the popular arts, at this point!

je: Let’s remember: Moonlight did win the Best Picture Academy Award this year.

JE: Yeah, that really was a beautiful thing… even though it probably wouldn’t have happened had 45 not been elected, which is a confoundingly sad thought. But you’re right: we must find hope somewhere.

je: Indeed. And besides, there’s nothing left to post-modernize.

JE: Touché.

* * *

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Natasha Abramova plays Monkey, Stalker’s daughter in Tarkovsky’s acclaimed 1979 masterpiece. © renewed 2017, Criterion Collection.

ulter nation by Dirty/Clean is available to stream and purchase on BandCamp.

Indigestion’s a pain.

I found myself in the midst of an especially bad bout last night, tossing and turning in bed, struggling to fall back asleep. In such instances, I occasionally find myself achieving a heightened level of awareness and concentration: as if hyper-awareness of one’s natural (or unnatural, as the case might be) biological functions carried with it an increased sensitivity to other surrounding circumstances.

In this instance, I found myself dwelling upon a recent essay in-progress, which seems to be going nowhere slow. The subject of my reluctant essay is the suburban experience (more specifically: American films that have explored suburban themes in a Mythical vein). It’s one of those frustrating instances where the writer knows what he wants to convey—even how he wants to convey it—but once all the pieces are lined up together, they no longer convey what was meant to be conveyed.

I’m reminded now of a startling incident that occurred earlier in my workday, as I was driving a client back to her residence—which was located in a somewhat run-down suburban neighborhood. As we drove past some smartly structured houses, I offered some casual observations to break the silence of the drive—small talk about some of the more striking residences, many of which featured alarmingly pointed rooftops. It was then that my client interjected a most unexpected anecdote: “Yeah… A lady shot her two kids in the head last night, over there by that school. I guess she had told the cops the world was a terrible place, and she didn’t want them living in it anymore.”

Understandably, I found myself at a loss to form a suitable response. I’m certain I said something nominal and insufficient, something along the lines of “that’s horrific,” or “how terrible.” It was a jolting reminder of just how fleeting and cruel this life can be. It also underscored the inadequacy of my writings on suburbia, which paled in comparison to this shocking anecdote—having failed to represent the surreal perversity of the suburban experience, in its full scope. A recently released Sun Kil Moon record came to mind, as well. In the opening track, “God Bless Ohio” (a follow-up, of sorts, to the preceding “Carry Me Ohio”), songwriter Mark Kozelek pays tribute to the Northern gothic elements of Midwestern living, touching upon a range of suburban issues: alcoholism; A.A. meetings; the loneliness of being a child; nursing homes; psychotherapy; human trafficking; mass killings.

Maybe I should just scrap my essay and let Kozelek’s song speak for me, instead.


Sleeplessness has been a recurring motif of 2017 for me. During the day, I frequently find myself struggling to concentrate on basic tasks—easily distracted by the latest development in the investigation of our president’s relationship with Russian oligarchs and government operatives, as well as the on-going toll of devastation mounted by a conscience-free Congress and an administrative agenda fueled by corporate greed, short-term private gain, and a stiff middle finger to the vast majority of our country’s population. I was struck by a recent episode of Bill Maher’s show on HBO, in which Dr. Cornel West and David Frum were guest panelists. In an exchange that was (admittedly) cringe-worthy at times, Maher and West sparred on the subject of the 2016 election: West, who was outspokenly opposed to another Clinton presidency, stood by his idealistic decision to not vote for either of the primary candidates; Maher challenged his decision with an itemization of some notable areas in which the two primary candidates differed from one another, with an emphasis on the compounded harm being inflicted upon minority groups by 45.

Hearing Cornel West’s voice rarely fails to bring me joy: his combination of humor, zeal, and intellect is unsurpassed by his few peers, and his perspective is fiery but reasonable. Watching him spar with Maher on this issue brought to light the deeply personal nature of his investment in politics, and I found myself torn between two equally impassioned points of view. As I think back on the debate, I’m struck by the awkward correlation between religion and politics in this country. Apart from the obvious investment of religious power in American politics, it strikes me that politicians in this country are frequently placed on a similar plane to religious leaders: they are often evaluated as much on abstract moral principles (or lack thereof), as they are on competencies and qualifications. West makes it clear during the debate that his opposition to Hillary Clinton was of a moral nature—a perceived “lack of integrity,” as he defined it. On the flip-side of the argument, we find the pragmatism of the vehemently atheistic Maher, who is able and willing to look past the character flaws of a given politician in order to hone in on the practical, real-life outcomes of their stances and actions.

Setting aside my love of Dr. West (and that tremendous laughter of his), I cannot help but feel a sense of exasperation at our country’s obsession with bringing religion into all facets of life. I’m reminded of an observation shared by a philosophy professor I had in college, who attended multiple symposiums at home and abroad, only to find that European nations have little (if any) of the political hang-ups our country has developed in this regard. Theories of evolution and creationism coexist peaceably; women, atheists, and non-Christian theists are allowed to hold public office without controversy; and outside the Vatican (a unique religious outlier, if ever there was one), it’s unanimously agreed that religion ought not to be a deciding factor in economic and social policy. I think of David Fincher’s American film masterpiece, Se7en, in which the seven deadly sins of Christian folklore provide the foundation for a rigorously coherent series of horrific murders. I think also of real-life horrors committed by the Ku Klux Klan (a white Christian organization); the so-called “conversion therapies” imposed upon gay people in Christian communities; the persecution of victims of rape, in an assortment of forms, under the alarming guise that their assaults may have been “God’s will;” the historical genocide of Native American people, performed in the name of a Christian God and country.

“God bless Ohio
God bless every man
Woman and child
God bless every bag of bones, six feet under the snow
God bless O
God bless O
God bless Ohio”

I think of the recent terrorist attack in Manchester, which stole the lives of 22 unsuspecting concertgoers and injured 120 others. (I will refrain from making mention here of the terrorists responsible for the attack, or the religion of which their organization is a perverse offshoot, seeing as how they have gathered sufficient negative publicity over the years—and it doesn’t seem to be helping any. Perhaps it is best to remove the plank from one’s own eye, first.) I think of all the different religions in the world that provide a foundation for the most appalling crimes against humanity, and I think of the unscrupulous support lent to our current administration by millions of American Christians. I think of that genius of early American cinema, Ernst Lubitsch—having just watched Trouble in Paradise for the first time the night prior. I think of the excruciating cleverness of Lubitsch’s characters; the hilariously amoral, yet totally functional relationships they foster and maintain with one another. I think of Jorge Luis Borges’s beautiful and unassuming essays, compiling assorted theories of eternity and ontology: the power of the human mind to overcome the self-inflicted impositions of religion—and the seeming refusal of the human spirit to embrace the assets of pragmatism. I think of Morrissey’s early song for The Smiths (“Suffer Little Children”) about two highly pragmatic, non-religious sociopaths from a separate, but equally dark chapter in Manchester’s history (Ian Brady and Myra Hindley). I think of the silence on the moors where their innocent victims were slaughtered; I think of the screams and explosions that jolted Manchester Arena on this god-forsaken Monday night. I think also of the solace offered during a non-religious vigil held in Manchester on Tuesday, to mourn lost lives and lost innocence; and the open gestures of solidarity extended by individuals and cities around the world—none of which required the pretense of religion to achieve their intended message.

Oh, human (t)error:
So much to answer for.


I’ve thought a lot (and continue to think) about the ways in which the jolt of last year’s election outcome sent shockwaves pulsing through every facet of the American experience—many of which we have yet to fully appreciate (or, in some cases, even to recognize). I’ve noticed tiny paradigm-shifts taking place in areas of everyday life, some of which are so minute they might be disputed as misperceptions. For instance, there’s the weekly program CBS Sunday Morning, formerly hosted by Charles Osgood and currently represented by Jane Pauley: previous segments on ecology and environmental issues have accentuated the well-documented, factual impact of climate change upon different parts of the planet (many of which provide source material for the show’s closing “moment of nature”). In the most recently aired episode, Jane visits the city of Amsterdam, where she is forced (as commentator) to acknowledge certain obvious changes in the landscape—including a visible rise in the sea level, and subsequent changes in irrigation. A phrase she uses in this segment has been stuck in my mind all week: “whatever the cause.” As in, “whatever the cause of these changes…” As if the matter were still up for debate.

I think of the shifts in media coverage that have historically accompanied drastic regime changes in different countries throughout the world. I wonder to myself how long it might have taken for Mussolini’s state-operated propaganda machine to fully infiltrate popular Italian knowledge, or for Lenin to convince his minions of the evils of Western living.

I imagine this essay reading like a poor man’s attempt at a Mark Kozelek ramble. I’m reminded, again, of my meandering essay on the suburban experience—and how truly difficult it can be to write about something when you actually have some pre-existing knowledge of it (in contrast to the old adage). In a way, such a task is even more difficult than writing about the unfamiliar: at least then, one can quite easily acknowledge and convey the limitations of one’s lived experience. But in the case of a subject that lies close to home, the writer is expected to have some sort of preternatural grasp on the topic—a near-omniscient, no-stone-left-unturned level of understanding. Maybe this is why so many Americans are turned off when a politician fails to publicly answer a question with utmost knowledge and understanding of their personal interests: instead, they’re expected to be godlike magicians, sauntering into town on the campaign trail and telling everyone exactly what they need (or, more commonly, want) to hear. God forbid a politician should ever be heard saying those three dreaded words: “I don’t know.” Far better to hear someone say: “I am your voice… I alone can fix it.

* * *

I think of the recent return of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s much-beloved television series, Twin Peaks. I think of what a tremendous joy it was, watching those first two hours of this new 18-part series—momentarily forgetting about issues of popularized ignorance and man-made atrocity (of both the religious and the non-religious variety). I’m grateful for creators—true creators—like Lynch and Frost, who seemingly have made it their lot in life to build upon and restore popularity to Myth (the only human creation that continues to transcend pure reason and pure religion). It makes me feel lucky to be alive, to witness the brilliant and awe-inspiring fruits of their efforts. I hope these efforts—and the efforts of other keepers of the flame—are ample enough to keep the Myth alive, for all the atrocities that are coming down the pipeline.

And I continue trying to shake my hyper-awareness of how terrible things have gotten. I continue trying to just live life, for what it’s worth, and not let it bring me down. But damn: indigestion’s a pain.

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?

“It’s getting dark/too dark to see.”
– Bob Dylan

It pains me to admit, but I continue finding myself caught in the whirlwind of current cultural affairs: forever flabbergasted by the institutionalized American virtue of ignorance; never willing to shake off my disappointment at how it’s all gone so wrong. As someone who has consistently relied upon (and benefited from) the once common cultural values of intellect, empathy, innovation, and reflection, I am growing increasingly disturbed by the environment I am existing in. I am mortified by the recent revelation that gay men are, as I live and breathe, being systemically rounded up in Chechnya: electrocuted, beaten, outed to their families, and—on several reported occasions—made the victims of horrific “honor” killings. My mortification is multiplied by the apparent refusal of our country’s leaders (that perspiring Senator from Florida notwithstanding) to even acknowledge these crimes against humanity—though I find it unlikely that any significant action will be taken in the immediate future, considering the convoluted relationship between this administration and the Russian government. Though not a pessimist by trade, finding shreds of optimism is difficult in a climate where the very notion of a shared human experience—one in which the assaults leveled against our fellow men and women are recognized, on some fundamental level, to be assaults against ourselves, as a people—is no longer certain. I think of those photos, proudly released during the campaign trail, of our current president’s sons posing with the bloodied carcasses of endangered animals. These images read to me as a microcosm of this diseased mindset, one in which living creatures are of no essential value outside their commodification as a trophy, a social hindrance, or an economic obligation.

There is nothing natural in nature.

While completing my undergrad degree in the field of social work, I invested much of my inquiry in the specialized field of research studies, and the hybridization of qualitative and quantitative analyses for (what I believed to be) under-reported contemporary social issues. When handed the assignment of developing an original research study proposal, I decided to focus on the representation of hate crimes by major media outlets—with an emphasis on internet and television sources. I recall my teacher raising her eyebrows when I initially informed her of my topic; it dawned on me, after our conversation, that she had feared I was speculating that such crimes were being exaggerated (in truth, my predictions were invested in the opposite direction). At the time, we were nearing the end of the first term in Obama’s two-term presidency, and a wave of social awareness was gradually washing over the nation: the idea of legalizing gay marriage was being discussed in concrete, achievable terms; the shootings of unarmed young black men were stirring a hushed but discernible dialogue about institutionalized racism; mass shootings in schools (among other public places) forced a superficial examination of the American obsession with guns, and shone a light on our society’s failure to incorporate mental health awareness in that elusive social construct known as the “American mindset.”

As I examined my personal bias, in an attempt to minimize its impact on my written proposal, I realized that I found this mindset to be most clearly defined by three basic criteria: an established focus on action (as opposed to underlying motive); the stubborn retention of hardened beliefs (as opposed to the recognition of fluctuating predispositions and disparate value systems); and an emphasis on the triumph of the individual (as opposed to the potential of the collective). I privately hypothesized at the time that this apparent wave of heightened—or, at least, heightening—social consciousness would eventually prove to be a mirage; that it would dissipate just as quickly as it seemed to arise, and that the bottom line of free-market capitalism, unbound by universal ethics or common-sense restrictions (e.g. keeping certain areas off-bounds: healthcare, the military-industrial complex, and the school/prison systems—seemingly intertwined), would triumph above this trend of recreational interest in the improvement of our society as a whole.

The 2016 U.S. election at once validated and provided a challenge to my hypothesis. Validated, insofar as the outcome of the election appeared (to me, at least) a testament to this country’s internalized indifference to issues of social justice and civil rights; challenged, insofar as the backlash to the election result—the rallies, the protests, the donations pouring into the coffers of civil rights organizations—hinted that the horse being flogged wasn’t quite dead yet. But three months into this new administration (which more closely resembles a New World Order with every passing news cycle), I find myself pondering a far more fundamental dilemma than the mapping of social progress. I find myself wondering: at what point is this ship—the ship known as American culture—going to become so dilapidated, so diseased, so leaky, that it will have no choice but to sink beneath the waters of its own fallacy? Put another way: is it possible we may, eventually, reach a point where there is little left on this ship that could be deemed worthy of salvaging?

* * *

To avoid having this read like a cynic’s exaggerated assessment of a totally workable problem (a consistent pet peeve of mine), I want to make clear the underlying concern in this line of questioning. First off, I am not particularly concerned about the ability of this country to swing its pendulum of political rhetoric back in the direction of popular liberalism—a direction that I find myself indisputably drawn towards, when forced to choose between the two extremes (and bearing in mind the unfortunate reality that, as a nation of people, we appear to be incapable of functioning outside of extremes). I also don’t doubt the ability of individuals to stoke the embers of “liberal” issues in their respective communities, preparing them to be brought to the forefront again once the pendulum makes its inevitable swing in the other political direction. What I am starting to question, though, is the efficacy—the integrity of this nation of people, which once (upon a time) provided a beacon of decency, altruism, and innovation to folks at home and abroad. And while I have yet to throw in the towel, I find myself grasping for a credible answer to this rather large and cumbersome question.

Much has been written about the (seemingly hypocritical, but arguably predictable) commitment of evangelical Christians to this totally secular, greed-driven, and unprincipled administration they helped to elect. Even more continues being written about the concerning involvement of the Russian government in our election, forcing one to question how the fabric of our democratic process can remain intact amid the shifting atmospheres of our digital age (taking into account the role that social media played in the distribution of propaganda and intolerance throughout the months leading up to voting season). Many of us have found ourselves posing the never-ending “why?” to this insane state of affairs, and the more information is disclosed to support an answer, the more insane it all seems. Personally, I find myself perpetually befuddled by the con job aspect of this global, political, and socio-cultural catastrophe. It goes without saying that, depending on one’s political leanings and selected information sources, the disclosed involvement of Russian trolls in the distribution of social media propaganda may (or may not) have been cause for concern in the voting booth. But one would be remiss in considering the possibility that any voters were not privy to the documented truth that our current president is both an incompetent businessman and a terrible person (or, to paraphrase an observation shared by David Sedaris at a book talk last night: “regardless of how someone voted, I assumed the fact that he was a deplorable human being to be a given”). Though white-washed by the vacuous talking heads at Fox News, the con jobs committed by our now-president were well-documented and well-publicized by most every other major news outlet. The disregard that was openly displayed towards these offenses by his ardent supporters surely transcended their hatred of Mrs. Clinton. It pointed to the underlying and unfortunate truth, which no one seemed comfortable admitting at the time: the appalling disconnect between his most zealous supporters, and any form of objective reality.

And this is where the road forks to the right of any historical precedent. Whereas every U.S. President elected (at least, in my lifetime) was voted into office under a quasi-Mythical pretense—using Merriam-Webster’s primary definition of Myth: a “story … that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people”—we are forced to accept that, at best, 45 was elected under the pretense of Webster’s secondary definition: “an unfounded or false notion.” Looking back, one finds that Barack Obama was elected under the pretense of his voters’ belief in the Myth that minorities will restore balance, integrity, and rejuvenation to a nation desecrated—time and again—by stupid white men. Or that W. Bush was elected under the Mythical pretense of restoring traditional family values to an office desecrated by the lustiness of his predecessor. Or that his predecessor embodied the Myth of the underdog, in the undeniably thrilling election of 1992 (documented memorably in the Pennebaker documentary, The War Room). One could also carry the underdog Myth over into the campaign of Mrs. Clinton, who represented (and to some, still represents) the Myth of the feminine as a source of social healing. (For all the naysayers’ protestations to her perceived arrogance and cronyism, those of us who had been around long enough to chart her career trajectory could appreciate her perseverance and her commitment to humane issues in the dirty field of politics, seemingly—and finally—against all odds). But no comparable Myth holds up to scrutiny in the campaign of 45, as his electorate fail to represent a coherent world view, or any coherent set of values. We have no recourse but to view the myth (def. #2) of white male supremacy as the most logical explanation for their choice of this otherwise totally unremarkable person to lead the country. And even this explanation remains tenuous, in my eyes—seeing as how much of their enthusiasm appears to be little more than a convictionless response to the perceived provocation of a diversified mainstream culture.

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George Stephanopoulos and James Carville remain living scions (for some, at least) to the Myth of the underdog in politics. Still taken from the D.A. Pennebaker documentary film, The War Room © 1993, October Films

The other possible explanation, which chills me to the bone and leaves me at a loss for words: a substantial portion of his voting base have renounced their commitment to any coherent system of values, and they are now collectively steering this country with a worldview that can be defined as maniacal—verging on sociopathic. The statistical fact that over 80% of self-professed Christians voted for—and most of them continue to support—this election outcome, indicates that things have taken a turn for the different (in contradiction to the voices who insist this administration is just “business as usual”). Whereas all the available evidence in the religious right’s nomination of Reagan and Bush (Sr. and Jr.) served to validate their conviction that these men might capably represent a “traditional” system of values, the plethora of evidence available for evaluating their selected candidate in the 2016 election indicates an almost by-the-book contradiction of every purported principle this voting block once represented. Interviews with these voters, and journalistic pieces published by a wide range of sources (from NPR, to USA Today, to the Washington Post), serve to corroborate the general understanding that many Christians are seeking to reclaim a cultural narrative, and their aim is not above supporting someone who practically embodies the Myth of the antichrist. Whether by hastening the apocalypse they so anxiously await, or by securing a super-conservative judge for the Supreme Court, or by simply not having elected Hillary Clinton, these voters—by and large—report that their decision has yielded a satisfactory outcome.

Some of these voters, as well as many a libertarian, will go so far as to insist that the contradictions are comparable among both parties; that Democrats overlooking the Clintons’ established history with Saudi oligarchs (a carry-over from the Bush and Reagan administrations) is equatable to Republicans overlooking the ludicrous overabundance of red flags surrounding their selected candidate. The term “false equivalency” was bandied about frequently by independent analysts during (and following) the 2016 election: while I have no intention of abusing its usage in this essay, I find this a fitting spot to plug it in. Because, as stated previously, the heinous disregard for any recognizable value system—unless we are to consider the love of ratings a value—which was reinforced at every twist and turn in our president’s campaign… well, that is a spectacle all its own, without any worthy synonym in the lexicon of our country’s history. Not only is this administration proving to be a bottomless mockery of its clearly outlined responsibilities (a fate which could have been predicted by anyone with a learned response system): it is proving to be the apotheosis of a culture in the process of collapsing—about to give way completely under the force of this maximal assault on sense and sensibility.

* * *

To recap: The Apprentice. The Kardashians. The Jenners. The televangelists. The morning talk show hosts. The prime-time reality television spectacles. The millions of self-made YouTube sensations, driven exclusively by the sycophancy of their viewers. All this incessant talking—and not a word of it meaningful. The emerging notion that value lies not within our hearts and minds, or within our capacity for relating to others in a decent and functional fashion (or in our skill level, and our capacity to achieve greatness); but rather, within a person’s conviction that such things are not worthy of one’s time—and ultimately, in the acceptance that this is the only conviction that counts.

Everything is sacred.

Seen in broader context, I should hope that everyone can recognize 45 as the pinnacle of a cultural malaise that has been brewing loudly and swiftly for well over a decade. It is this broader malaise—emboldening both the extremes of racist, sexist, capitalist fascism, and full-blown social anarchy—that provided the platform for this lunatic president to enter our vision’s periphery in the first place. It is ratings and recognition that our president has sought all along. While he presents a tragic miniaturization of the potential for one’s existence on this planet, his is an outlook shared by millions of other Westerners—all leading millions of separated, socio-culturally disintegrated lives. When viewing the internet as a vehicle for narcissism and cultural schizophrenia, a less deterministic individual might argue against throwing the baby out with the bathwater; personally, I find the entire social construct to be perched on a precarious edge, and the direction it’s sliding isn’t sky-bound. I suppose you could say, I still need convincing as to whether—years from now—any of our current cultural phenomena will even be worthy of human recall.

can attest to this, from my 30 years on the planet: being ignorant was not always a point of pride in dominant American culture. Although the troubled relationship with our own country’s history (specifically when it comes to issues such as slavery and genocide) has always been a point of contention for patriotic historians, the simple fact that history was deemed worthy of review pointed to a general recognition that within knowledge lay truth, and within truth lay value. Alas, as indicated by the recent protests in support of science (typing these words feels utterly surreal), knowledge is now culturally frowned upon—and by a growing contingent. The response by our current president to these protests provided a backhanded critique of knowledge, in and of itself:

“We should remember that rigorous science depends not on ideology, but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate. This April 22nd, as we observe Earth Day, I hope that our nation can come together to give thanks for the land we all love and call home.”

Though I give points for this being one of the more superficially erudite statements made by the man in his brief political career, I shiver at the sheer volume of inherent hypocrisy—the incongruity; the unearthly detachment of his delivery (for after all, these are not his words: they are a teleprompter’s, which is to be expected from POTUS on occasion. I reckon 45 deserves a boost in ratings for this commendable step up from his previous, more amateurish m.o.). One must view this statement within the context of his first week in office, during which 45: reversed Obama-era protections preventing coal from being dumped in our rivers; wiped all climate change data from the White House website (only to have it restored, on the heels of voluminous protestations); denied (again) the statistically proven reality of climate change; alleged that millions of invisible admirers showed up for his inauguration—whereas the millions of photographically evident protesters did not, in fact, exist. And even before his inauguration, let us remember that 45 proudly proposed drilling for oil in our national parks (not to mention his silence on the newly implemented House rules which would allow the sale of national parks). It’s only fitting that a couple of days after this statement, in an Associated Press interview, the same president should proceed to dwell obsessively upon the significance of his viewership out-numbering the viewership of news coverage during the horrors of September 11th. Just as with the man himself (if one were generous enough to refer to him with the fully developed biological noun), it is a comparison at once repellent, mocking, and atrocious; ultimately, devoid of any value whatsoever. Unlike his invariably more dignified predecessors—who hid their private lives, their hardships, and their neuroses behind closed doors—45 has succeeded in making his neurosis, corruption, and reprehensible character a cause for celebration and worship.

I think, once again, of this sinking ship—once an enviable (and dare-I-say, admirable) nation of people. While there remain millions of decent American citizens, frantically endeavoring to keep the admirable embers of this society (along with its core sense of sanity) aglow, there is also an evident, emerging population of humans who have observably devolved from what once was expected to be our potential for greatness. And while this strain of devolution—which also extends itself to include the pre-emptively intolerant culture of many so-called “liberal” colleges—is taking no prisoners, it does seem to be taking sides. Because statistics (specifically, independent analysis of partisan opinion polls from before and after the inauguration of 45) indicate that it is predominantly Republican voters who have detached themselves from objective reality. Whereas many Democratic voters—when questioned about commonplace issues, such as taxes and foreign policy—have voiced their opinion in terms of observable similarities between Obama’s policies and those of 45, a much larger portion of Republican voters indicated a personal bias that extends the limits of available facts (seemingly to assail or praise the competency of the president in office at each given time). For instance, although U.S. tax rates did not vary between the tax years 2015 and 2016 (with the country still operating under the budget of the Obama administration’s final fiscal year), a recent Pew poll reveals that the public approval of tax rates among Republicans voters rose by 17% this year. On the flip-side, Democratic voters who were polled revealed consistent ratings of approval from year to year, in accordance with the stasis of our current tax policy. Likewise, whereas only 22% of polled Republican voters approved of Barack Obama’s proposal to strike Syria, a startling 88% now find themselves in agreement with our current president’s proposal to do the very same.

Ultimately, it is not our country’s ability to swing back towards popular liberalism that I call into question: it is our country’s apparent inability to swing back towards popular wisdom that I am deeply disturbed by. Because popular wisdom previously would have determined that a country ought not to place a proven con man in its highest office, much less expect a sudden change in character—or, more foolishly, expect this character to offer any viable solution to long-standing problems. And once-popular wisdom certainly would not have ennobled this culture of “famous-for-being-famous,” which somehow—although steadily eating itself—never appears to run out of itself. This is the diseased water seeping through the leaks in our ship: engulfing everything it can reach in a swamp of ignorance and intolerance, and drowning the lot of it in insignificance. Sure, this vessel could remain afloat for an indeterminate period of time; but unless it is patched and properly repaired, it will eventually—inevitably—prove itself unsustainable.

“It is useless. Nothing is possible now.”

The reader may be wondering about the block quotes I’ve sporadically inserted throughout this essay. They are from Pasolini’s film of the Myth of Medea—another of the director’s works that I’ve found illuminating in these times of widespread disorientation. These quotes provide a sort of mantra for the concerns I’m attempting to outline in this disoriented piece, and it seemed fitting to me that they should come from a comparably enraged film. The picture opens with the centaur recounting the Mythical history of the Golden Fleece to the infant Jason: the centaur observes that “there is nothing natural in nature”—referring to the paradoxical notion that we do harm to our own natural environment, whenever we take it for granted; and that the Mythical exists all around us, if we are only open to perceiving it. The centaur further recognizes that “everything is sacred”—an intentionally broad statement, which Pasolini manipulates to reflect his own fears of modern man having lost touch with sacredness in any form (religious or otherwise). The director went on to personally observe, in one of his final interviews, that people were appearing less and less to him as human beings, and more frequently as mere “machines bumping into one another.” Unfortunately, present circumstances offer much in the way of validation for Pasolini’s projected concerns. Because when even the most devout religious zealots are willing to renounce their own stated values, in order to hijack a cultural narrative (perhaps not realizing how their hypocrisy reinforces the disinterest and disdain of those atheist folks whose souls they claim to be concerned about)—and when even the most devout liberal activist is cornered by the hashtag- and selfie-contained activism of millenial “culture”—then truly, “we are all in danger” (the title of Pasolini’s final interview).

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Maria Callas takes on the role of Medea in Pasolini’s film of Euripides’s Myth. The narrative culminates with Medea’s decision to kill her own children, in lieu of having them suffer banishment by their father. © 1969, SNC

To be sure, one hopes that the core qualities of humanity (empathy, cognition, innovation, and reflection) will somehow survive in this hazardous environment; that they will eventually redeem this unsettling fall from grace, and restore some sense of balance to a reality that is—rather swiftly—rendering these very qualities vestigial. One certainly hopes we won’t reach the state of mind Maria Callas’s Medea assumes at the end of Pasolini’s film, when she slaughters her children and burns the castle down, screaming insanely into the camera: “It is useless. Nothing is possible now.” Yet the provocation underlying this film, and the provocation of these outlined concerns, remain of pertinence to the subject at hand—and they beg the question: Who among us is willing  and determined to prove these concerns unfounded? And how are we going to prove it?

PJ Harvey’s pre-apocalyptic North American tour

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View from above: taking in the stage set-up for PJ Harvey’s Massey Hall performance from the upper balcony.

“Water
Walking
Walking on water
Walking
Walking on for years, and years, and years
Taking it into my head
Living by the right lines
Reading what the very man said…”
– “Water” (from the studio album Dry, 1992)

It’s a Thursday night in Toronto, Ontario. I’m seated in the third row of the uppermost balcony in the legendary and historic Massey Hall theater, waiting anxiously for the show to unfold before me. While I await, I engage in some shameless people-watching—taking in the surprisingly diverse demographic range of fellow admirers. I find that I am compulsively adjusting my legs in the cramped space between my seat and the subsequent row; I remind myself that humans were of a somewhat smaller build at the time of this venue’s construction, but I am fairly confident this won’t prove detrimental to my enjoyment of the spectacle I’ve awaited eagerly for the past 13 years. I take in each component of the widespread set on stage (three separate drum kits; two keyboard rigs; a row of five vocal microphones; an array of guitars), and I tell myself one last time: you’re about to see PJ Harvey perform live in concert.

Pinch yourself.

* * *

It’s a trying task—writing about an artist whose craftsmanship and soul essence you’ve admired, studied, and (even, admittedly) obsessed over for a period of over a decade; objectivity is rather firmly out of the question (to put it mildly). Then again, one starts to wonder: is objectivity ever truly within one’s reach as an audience participant? Aren’t we all at the mercy of our individual whims, preferences, and fetishes when it comes to consuming a live performance—let alone being at the mercy of other attendees in one’s immediate vicinity? Subjectivity in such matters seems to me an inevitable and foregone conclusion.

I’m again reminded of Naomi Greene’s writings on the “free indirect subjectivity” permeating the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini: her excellent book, Cinema of Heresy, happened to be my primary reading material during this Canadian road trip. In hindsight, the correlations between these two seemingly disparate sources (Greene’s theoretical writings on one of world cinema’s most controversial and ill-fated legends, and the live performance of a living music legend) seem to me overwhelmingly prevalent. Walking back to our hotel after show’s end—in stunned silence; for what can one say, after achieving transcendence, that might add anything of possible merit?—the images of Pasolini’s final films (having just finished Greene’s chronological text earlier that day) converged aqueously in my mind with the overpowering imagery of the evening’s events. And I found myself replaying the borrowed chorus from the penultimate number repeatedly in my head: “Wade in the water/God’s gonna trouble the water…

I suppose some context may help to frame the following thoughts in a clearer light for the unfortunate reader of this (doubtlessly meandering) essay. For starters, a temporal framework: it is Thursday, April 13th, 2017. PJ Harvey is embarking upon an expansive (comparative to her 2016 outing) North American tour, starting in Toronto. In Canada, the Prime Minister is a doe-eyed populist liberal, beloved by citizens at home and abroad. The United States, meanwhile, has as its Commander-in-Chief a mentally unhinged populist autocrat, who may all-too-conceivably be accelerating the end of the world via any number of available means (nuclear holocaust; opportunistic climate change denial; a general inability to refrain from performing rash acts, with the apparent intent of continuously domineering the attention of profit-driven media outlets).

I’ve spent much of this year having pained conversations with friends, associates, and acquaintances from across the political spectrum—trying in vain to make sense of what is happening in the world; hoping against all hope that a deus ex machina will present itself and save the human species from the destructive urges of this latest assortment of clinically unstable world leaders. Earlier this week, news emerged of gay men in Chechnya being rounded up—some reported to have been murdered—for imprisonment in concentration camps. On the same day that Ms. Harvey’s tour is slated to begin, the Pentagon authorizes the deployment of the largest non-nuclear bomb at the disposal of the grandiose U.S. Military-industrial complex; it is reported that a total of 36 Afghan militants were killed as a result of the bombing. A week prior, the current U.S. president authorized the launch of Tomahawk missiles against Assad’s regime in Syria. And in the midst of all this chaos, American citizens anxiously await confirmation of well-founded suspicions that this very president colluded with Vladimir Putin and his legion of government cronies to influence the 2016 election—which would frame all of these happenings within the disorienting precedent of a traitor being placed in the highest office of the American government, and subsequently authorizing attacks upon foreign countries under the galling auspices of delivering democracy. One may find oneself drawn to the lines from one of Harvey’s songs on her newest album:

“Those are the children’s cries from the dark
these are the words written under the arch
scratched in the wall in biro pen
this is how the world will end.”

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PJ Harvey and her nine-piece band take the stage in Toronto to kick off their 2017 North American tour in support of The Hope Six Demolition Project.

I find myself propelled back into that uncomfortable seat, way up in the balcony of Massey Hall. Polly Jean Harvey is on-stage, decked out like an exotic bird, perched in heeled leather boots that—from a distance, at least—give the marked impression of a heron’s legs. As the second song of the night (and possibly my favorite track from her latest offering) begins to take flight, a curtain behind the stage unveils a new addition to the set. Rising from behind the vaulted proscenium, a massive, dimpled wall starts to loom increasingly (and rather forebodingly) large above the ten-piece band. I’m paralyzed by the intensity of the moment: the stunning silences between the guitar notes; the forced breathing of the keyboardist, adding sonic texture and punctuation throughout the number. Polly’s voice soars at the start of each verse—and this is but a warm-up for the night’s vocal acrobatics: “This is the ministry/Of defence/The stairs and walls are/All that’s left.

Two drummers, Jean-Marc Butty (a resident of PJ’s band since her 2009 tour in support of A Woman A Man Walked By) and Alain Johannes (a newer addition), are pounding out what I presume the opening of the seventh seal, as described in the Book of Revelations, might very well sound like. I’m both riveted by the sights and sounds that are overwhelming my senses, and forcibly reminded of the global events surrounding this occasion. After all, it was Polly’s visits to Afghanistan and Kosovo between 2011 and 2014 that initially spawned the “project” of this album’s namesake; it was her conscious decision to go “to the front line of the issue rather than picking it out of the newspapers” (as quoted by Billy Bragg in the May 2016 issue of Uncut) which resulted in this alarming approach to songwriting, as well as the brave selection of subject matter. Drawing a slight but noteworthy contrast between Ms. Harvey’s approach and that of Bob Dylan, Bragg explains: “Dylan wasn’t beaten up during the Civil Rights in America, but he read about Medgar Evers and he wrote about it. Whereas Polly seems to be much more like a war artist in the fact that she’s actually gone there to experience it and bring it back. It’s like frontline reporting.”

While the ostensible intent of this project appears to faithfully have been grounded in this attitude of “[wanting] to smell the air, feel the soil and meet the people of the countries I was fascinated with,” it’s worth noting that the finished outcomes of this pursuit (the book of poetry and photographs, The Hollow of the Hand; the album; the world tour) all carry a flavor that is noticeably removed from a purely journalistic outlook. A worthy anecdote to highlight this distance between the intent and the outcome of Harvey’s latest project (a distance which, I might add, is inherent to the realization of any creative project—though breadth varies from case to case) is the backlash the singer/songwriter received from Vincent Gray—the former mayor of Washington, D.C.—after releasing the album’s second single, “The Community of Hope.” Inspired by Harvey’s latest visit to the nation’s capital, which centered upon lower-income areas within Ward 7, the song contains lyrics alluding to a school that “looks like a shit hole;” a neighborhood resembling a “drug town” (“just zombies, but that’s just life”); and the renovation of an old mental institution into the Homeland Security base. Gray’s exact words on the subject, as quoted in an online article by DCist: “I will not dignify this inane composition with a response.” His Campaign Treasurer, on the other hand, chose to dignify the song with the following assessment, “PJ Harvey is to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news”—which leaves one in doubt as to whether this fellow would be able to pick Ms. Harvey out of a line-up, let alone being in any position to capably interpret her peculiar style of writing.

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Points of reference (clockwise from left): The Hollow of the Hand poem and photo book; the May 2016 issue of Uncut Magazine; Uncut’s Ultimate Music Guide to PJ Harvey; the studio album.

Although I personally beg to differ with the criticisms launched against this (and other songs) on the album, I find them of significance insofar as they point to the aforementioned distance between Harvey’s stated goal for this project, and the devastating result of her efforts. It’s a distance that Naomi Greene (or Gilles Deleuze, for that matter) might argue to have been marked by that same “free indirect subjectivity,” which forms the cornerstone of not only Pasolini’s work, but Godard’s, Antonioni’s, and Fassbinder’s as well. As explained by Pasolini, this form of subjectivity in writing can be identified as “the presence of the author who, through an abnormal freedom, transcends his film and continually threatens to abandon it, detoured by sudden inspiration—an inspiration of latent love for the poetic world of his own vital experiences… In short, beneath the technique produced by the protagonist’s state of mind—which is disoriented, uncoordinated, beset by details, given to compelling anxieties—the world constantly surfaces as it is seen by the equally neurotic author: dominated by an elegant, elegiac, and never classicist, spirit” (Greene, p. 119).

Elegant and elegiac. Two words that would befit PJ Harvey’s personae of the past decade most suitably. Ever since turning (yet) a(nother) page with the stark chamber pieces of 2007’s White Chalk, Harvey’s listeners and admirers have been privy to a somewhat different character angle than the one we identified throughout her ’90s output. Then again, when taken as a collected oeuvre, a dedicated student of her work may well reach the conclusion that her entire career has been predicated upon this same form of indirect subjectivity all along. One could feasibly take this observation further and argue that what her harshest critics have possibly reacted against is not her perceived “misanthropy,” or the seemingly perpetual darkness of her subject matter; their disapproval may instead stem from an (arguably justifiable) aversion to an artist who has chosen to specialize in the territory between her subject matter and her own creative self. For even in her most dedicated and visceral performances—the “Joan Crawford on acid” persona of the To Bring You My Love tour, or the lovelorn sensualist of Uh Huh Her—there exists an undeniable tension between the committed (forgive the pun) words and attitudes of her characters, and the mannered control of her own artist’s instinct. Not unlike Bowie, and yet the distance is even more pronounced—more arch (closer to Scott Walker territory, as far as comparisons go). With every new incarnation of her 25-year career span, it’s as though Polly Jean has been repeatedly pronouncing: “Here is a woman. She is not me, and yet she is.” (And with Let England Shake, this pronouncement stretched more broadly to incorporate the additional layer: “Here are the men who died in these wars. They are not me, and yet their blood courses through me.”)

This very same message emerged palpably and overwhelmingly at the start of her Massey Hall performance—as she emerged with her cohorts in the line formation of a marching band, and proceeded to chant the opening lines of the first number, “Chain of Keys” (which communicates on a far more imminently powerful level than in the studio recording): “Fifteen keys/Fifteen keys hang on a chain/The chain is joint/The chain is joint and forms a ring/The ring is in/The ring is in a woman’s hand/She’s walking on/She’s walking on the dusty ground.” The song makes reference to a woman whom she encountered on her travels in Kosovo—the keeper of the keys to fifteen houses owned by fifteen men she’s unsure if she will ever see again (the poem version of this song, as published in The Hollow of the Hand, includes the additional lines: “Numbers painted on the doors/posters on the locked-up church/in black and white, the recent dead./Now all I do is wait, she says.”) It is a shameless cliché, but I can think of no better way to describe the show’s introduction than to say it was electrifying.

Whereas in earlier outings, Polly Jean tended to slide rather directly into the skins of the characters sprinkled throughout her songs’ narratives, post-White Chalk PJ appears to have developed a keener dedication to maintaining (and even celebrating) the distance between herself as the artist, and the characters in her songs as autonomous beings. Which is part of what renders The Hope Six Demolition Project so rewarding upon repeat listening: the palpable, positive existence of the human beings who populate these eleven stories. Her perspective is with the subjects, but never totally within. And even this tenuous connection between herself and her characters is called into question repeatedly—most pointedly in the lyrics of “Dollar, Dollar,” where she finds herself “trapped” in the backseat of a car in Afghanistan, struggling to come to terms with the sight of an ill and impoverished child begging at her car window: “All my words get swallowed/In the rear view glass/A face pock-marked and hollow/He’s saying dollar, dollar.

These moments (alongside the militaristic psychodrama of “The Ministry of Defence,” with its cast of children who “do the same thing everywhere/They’ve sprayed graffiti in Arabic/And balanced sticks in human shit”) appear to me to parallel the observations of Gilles Deleuze, in reference to Pasolini and the notion of free indirect subjectivity on-film: “What characterizes Pasolini’s cinema is a poetic awareness which… is mystical or ‘sacred’… Here is the permutation of the trivial and the noble, the connection between the excremental and the beautiful, and the projection into myth that Pasolini diagnosed in free indirect discourse [seen] as the essential form of literature. And he succeeds in making it into a cinematographic form capable of grace as much as of horror.”

“…Lying on eleven years
Taking it into my head
Mary, Mary drop me softly
Been reading what your very man said
Lying on eleven years
Taking it into my head
Leave my clothes on the beach
I’m walking down into the sea…”

As with her earliest albums for Elektra, PJ Harvey’s music work continues to carry with it a cinematographic strain. This was rendered explicit with the release of the Let England Shake album, the unveiling of which culminated in a collaboration with filmmaker/photographer Seamus Murphy—who produced a short film for each one of the tracks on the record. Seamus has since contributed three original music videos to her latest project (as well as providing the accompanying photographs for her poems in The Hollow of the Hand), and one can only hope there will be more forthcoming. But beyond the produced visuals in support of the album, one is immediately drawn to the subjectively conjured visuals of Harvey’s indirect lyrics: the characters throughout these songs, nameless though they may be, remain with us for the album’s duration—and they don’t readily abandon us (or let us abandon them) after the end credits roll. There is such a truthful, mythical quality to the depictions of the people in these songs; it’s the type of truth that encompasses all the contradictions of reality, including the likelihood that her harsh description of certain locations (such as D.C.’s Ward 7) are both every bit as exaggerated as the former D.C. mayor would have us believe, and every bit as bad as she succeeds in making them sound.

But beyond these notions of indirect subjectivity and writer’s POV, there appears to be a more profound understanding at play within the subtext of The Hope Six Demolition Project and its supporting tour. Namely, the perceived wisdom of having fully accepted the limitations of what art can accomplish, while simultaneously reaching for the outer limits of what is capable. In short, by carving into the terrain of myth, which reveals itself to be sacred (while offering up equal measures of the profane) Harvey has set herself—and this work—apart from the more traditional forms of front-line reportage. In Cinema of Heresy, Greene also cites a previous text by Lino Micciche, in which he draws a comparison between the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, and the role assumed by Pasolini as a revolutionary film-maker: “Adorno is seen as the man who best described contemporary society as one in which the order of the Enlightenment turned into barbarianism, where thought ceased to think itself, where the destruction of the Myth… created the new myth of Reason (and its order of the ‘rational’). For Adorno, in fact, and in general for all ‘negative thought,’ the mandate of intellectuals and artists… [to] merely oppose what exists… winds up by reflecting… the barbarity of what exists” (p. 170). The rationalism of her critics is thus drawn into stark contrast with the unstated intent of her latest work (further outlined by her refusal to give any interviews on the subject—the interview being that most rational and, all-too-often, belittling of vehicles for the artist’s message): to bring us in direct contact with the unseen and unspoken terrain that lies beyond the imploding confines of twentieth century rationalism.

So not unlike Pasolini, with his mythic film quartet, PJ Harvey has ventured into that territory housing the origins of man-made myth itself: the lands of the Middle East. (Lines from “The Orange Monkey” serve to corroborate her intent: “…to understand/You must travel back in time/I took a plane to a foreign land/And said, ‘I’ll write down what I find.’”) Also not unlike Pasolini (who once remarked: “I do not place much faith in action, unless it is truly action”), Harvey is establishing a space for herself—as an artist—in which she can maintain an indirectly subjective rapport with her characters, all the while avoiding the self-righteous sermonizing of most social consciousness-driven songwriting. But what separates Harvey from Pasolini, as both a human being and an artist (among many of the latter’s character traits, not worth numbering), is the apparent, genuine empathy she reveals for the people she depicted in these songs. Unlike the Italian filmmaker, whose career ended on a note of the most profound and dour pessimism, Harvey appears to be at least containing—and quite possibly contemplating—the possibility of a happy ending. Whereas many critics, upon release, commented disparagingly that Ms. Harvey ought not venture into the world’s biggest problems without offering any solutions, I personally find their admonishment laughable and unwarranted—on at least two levels. First, since when has it become the artist’s responsibility to provide tactile solutions for the world’s most enormous social problems? (Morality aside, are competent artists generally equipped to become efficient policy-makers?) And second, couldn’t we all admit that one of the more substantial problems at-hand these days is the proliferation of individuals offering their self-proclaimed expertise on possible solutions, while never actually participating in the implementation of their propositions (or never having been an expert in the first place)? It appears to me, these days, that solutions to social issues are worked out and proposed without even considering the source problem from a multitude of angles. The irony of this faux pas, of course, is that the cultural notion of intentional, “solution-focused thinking”—featured in many an inspirational TED talk—has, in fact, failed to offer many tangible and long-lasting solutions to society’s broader issues. In part, this has been for a failure to comprehend, clearly and unanimously, the source(s) of the problems at-hand.

And so Polly Jean invites us to look. To really look, and to withhold from offering expert advice on something we’re not really an expert in. Her songs seem to be saying: “I’ve actually been there, and I know little more than I did before having gone. But here are the fragmented facts I can attest to; someone else has the rest of the picture.” It’s not just honest: it’s—dare I say it?—revolutionary, in proportion to the present-day worldviews of many writers. There is a genuine empathy inherent to these songs, and to their live performances, but it is all smartly packaged within the mythical/theatrical tradition of storytelling. It is both huge and small; conveyed with a Brechtian influence, and marked by occasions of unexpected warmth and humor (such as the ridiculous sax solos in “The Ministry of Social Affairs,” or the unexpected, highly rewarding inclusion of “50 Ft. Queenie” towards the live set’s culmination). Her current songwriting approach never quite enables us to get comfortable within the sketchy parameters of the scenes she is depicting: the work is clearly conscious of her—and of her likely audience’s—somewhat bourgeois milieu, and it refuses middle-class consumers the somewhat sadistic and classicist comfort of admiring the horrors of humanity from a safe distance. This approach reminds us perpetually that it “does not simply give a vision of the character and his world; it imposes another vision in which the first vision is transformed and reflected” (Deleuze, in reference to Pasolini’s use of the camera). And this is where Harvey most explicitly transcends the defined confines of the various mediums she is operating within (live performance; poetry; songwriting; recording), drawing our attention instead to analyze the intended purpose of the mediums themselves—and to recognize the endless sea of inherent subjectivity that envelops them. It is also significant to recognize here that, for the first time in her catalogue of album artwork designs, we are not delivered a crisply conceived, fine-tuned aesthetic. Announcing an immediate departure with the designer’s choice of the “Impact” font (which so many of us are likely to associate with the pedantic phenomenon of the “meme”), this newest album cover somewhat daringly mixes the personal—the crest being of family origin to John Parish, Harvey’s long-time collaborator—with the culturally vulgar. It is a product for creative consumption, and at the same time, it seems to be calling into question the integrity of its own conception.

In a highly reflexive, quasi-Godardian move, Harvey maintains a steady commitment throughout The Hope Six Demolition Project to not employing any emotional clichés, instead quoting from genre (the gospel blues of “River Anacostia;” the jazz-inflected plastic soul of “The Ministry of Social Affairs;” the barroom chant at the close of “Community of Hope;” the layered, live instrumentation of the tracks, loosely recalling ABCKO-era Stones) and inserting documentary-influenced observations throughout to achieve an almost endlessly repeatable cycle of sonic paintings. Appropriately enough, one of the stand-out pieces from the album (and a high point of her Massey Hall performance, garnering a standing ovation) is entitled “The Wheel:” it takes as its subject matter the thousands of children who go missing every year in the Middle East, leaving empty playground carousels spinning in the wind. Harvey never lets us forget that most of the characters in these songs are now—or have always been—ghosts, and she deploys language as a masterful weapon to conjure simple, timeless images in the listener’s mind of the chaotic, life-drenched, and death-soaked landscapes she has visited.

“…Now the water to my ankles
Now the water to my knees
Think of him, all waxy wings
Melted down into the sea
Mary, Mary, what your man said
Washing it all over my head
Mary, Mary, hold on tightly
Over water, under the sea…”

The back catalogue selections in her live set also reveal an astute awareness of the disparities and the similarities between her former selves, and her current outlook: by blocking the set with an initial chunk of songs from the new project, followed by a series of selections from the comparably poetic and politic-inflected Let England Shake, she then segues from the inebriated woman in a wheelchair at the end of Hope Six‘s “Medicinals,” to the woman undergoing an abortion in White Chalk‘s “When Under Ether” (with both songs also calling to mind the powerful presence of the woman holding the chain of keys to those fifteen abandoned houses—not to mention real-life issues of women’s rights, making global headlines on a daily basis). She then proceeds to weave, in a totally seamless and fluid fashion, numbers from To Bring You My Love and Rid of Me with the remaining pieces of her three most recent albums—alternating between the desperate child at her car window in “Dollar, Dollar” and the woman inviting “The Devil” to enter her soul “on a night with no moon;” between the blues of the beggars soliciting outside “The Ministry of Social Affairs,” and the self-confident swagger of the “king of the world” in “50 Ft. Queenie.” For an artist renowned for being (at times, overly) curatorial and selective in her live set sequencing, it’s an absolute joy to see her make full use of her biggest touring band to date, giving new life to older songs which fully warrant the panoramic treatment (did I mention that this band is phenomenally good?) In fact, two numbers from her most blatantly cinematic album to-date (and one of my personal favorites), To Bring You My Love, serve as a highly dramatic lead-up to the anticlimactic warning sign of “River Anacostia”—which closes out the set proper. Traveling from the woman who commits infanticide in “Down By the Water,” to the one who has “climbed over mountains” and “forsaken heaven/To bring you my love,” the set ends with a subtle return to the more prophetic overtones of the woman whose chain of keys first opened the floodgates. But something has changed between then and now: over the course of her transformative and bristling performance, she has come that much closer to fusing herself with the song’s narrator. She now beckons, with both a genuine urgency and the heightened drama of a Greek chorus: “What will become of us?/What will become of us?” As the band repeats the chorus of a 19th century African-American spiritual (another link in the chain, emphasizing the mythical proportion of the entire project), the wall that was erected behind the band at the start of the night sinks quietly to the ground—swallowed by the poisonous waters of the river in question.

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A towering wall looms large above Polly Jean and her band, as they provide both a warning sign of things to come.

As I left the theater and replayed that hair-raising performance of “River Anacostia” over again and again in my mind, I couldn’t help being reminded of the apocalyptic tone which overtook Pasolini in his final years—ultimately revealing its bleakest colors in the magisterial despair of Salò. I then thought of Harvey’s encore song selections: the broad, mythical canvas of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” and the borderline-romantic (yet invariably gritty) depiction of her homeland, “The Last Living Rose.” I thought of this final moment of transcendent beauty, occurring at the end of this crowning number as she intones: “Let me watch the night fall on the river/The moon rise up and turn to silver/The sky move, the ocean shimmer/The hedge shake, the last living rose/Quiver.” With this final word, she goes through the motions of a mannered circle dance, calling to my preoccupied mind the ritualistic dance at the close Salò, which I’d found myself reading about that same morning. It was both a fitting finale, and a lingering reminder of the fragility inherent to this performance and its contents—let alone the fragility of the world’s survival in the troubling times we find ourselves living in. Once again, in contrast to Pasolini, Harvey doesn’t flatly deny us a happy ending: she seems instead to be denying the viability of any self-imposed ending to the vast and mythical narrative she has embarked upon.

Throughout the towering and unforgettable show Ms. Harvey has put together, she consistently makes us (her long-time listeners and admirers) fully, viscerally aware of the continuity stretching from the opening notes of Dry‘s “Oh My Lover,” to the cinéma vérité -inflected poeticism of her more recent projects—and she leaves us breathlessly wondering what might come next. Her magisterial performance serves as a humbling reminder that she remains in a league of her own, artistically speaking. One could reach for any number of comparisons with other poets/songwriters/performance artists (Patti Smith; Marina Abramović; Kate Bush), but when all is said and done, Polly Jean Harvey has cultivated a soil fully her own—which she is both modestly maintaining and ambitiously expanding from year to year. Her subject matter may have evolved over the course of the past two and a half decades, but it has retained the air of the mountain breeze blowing through the clothes of the protagonist in “Fountain.” The mythical body of “Water” that she walks on at the end of Dry emerges as the same water in which a child is drowned in To Bring You My Love—which is, in turn, the same sea her characters float in during the finale of Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. The water from this sea now carries with it the poisons of “River Anacostia,” warning us (in a morally neutral tone) of the two most prominent threats looming over our present-day civilization: the devastating effects of climate change, and the contamination of our water supply.

As with Pasolini (widely regarded now as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century), Harvey ultimately calls to mind the “eternal return” of the Romanian philosopher, Mircea Eliade, who determined in his writings that: “Every sacrifice repeats the initial sacrifice and coincides with it… And the same holds true for all repetitions, i.e., all imitations of archetypes; through such imitations, man is projected into the mythical epoch in which the archetypes were first revealed. Thus we perceive… there is an implicit abolition of profane time, of duration, of ‘history’; and he who reproduces the exemplary gesture thus finds himself transported into the mythical epoch in which its revelation took place.” Likewise, Harvey has eschewed the self-righteous proselytizing of her pop music contemporaries, in favor of rooting herself firmly in mythical landscapes that—put in proper perspective—serve to dwarf the short-sighted and ineffectual efforts of modern man and woman.

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The audience dissipates into a crowd outside the venue.

And so we return to our hotel after this life-altering event, and we find ourselves at a loss for words. Because during the course of the past couple hours, we have transcended the boundaries of time and place, and we have experienced an authentic, humbling encounter with the likely origins of the world’s most widely debated (and frequently misrepresented) problems. We have been made hyper-aware of the vulgarity underlying the words of so many politicians, experts, and self-proclaimed artists—all vainly claiming to have found the solutions to these problems. But we can still see that revolving wheel, from which all those thousands of children have disappeared; we see “a tableau of the missing”—“a faded face/the trace of an ear.” And we “watch them fade out/and watch them fade out/and watch them fade out…”