“Narratives feed on themselves, and there was a time when Obamacare just kept losing.”

The conventional wisdom keeps being conventional. Now that the Affordable Care Act looks like it won’t collapse, the headlines have changed:

Narratives feed on themselves, and there was a time when Obamacare just kept losing. HealthCare.gov didn’t work. That made the uproar over canceled plans worse. And that spurred policy “solutions” from the White House that made it seem even more like the law didn’t work. Enrollment was embarrassingly low. The bad news snowballed, and the White House seemed to have dropped the ball on its most important domestic priority.

But over the past few weeks, the news has started to roll in the other direction. Enrollment has surged beyond expectations. Costs are coming in lower than predicted. Various reports say the number of uninsured Americans is falling. Now it’s good news snowballing, and it’s critics who increasingly seem to have missed the mark with their warnings of inevitable collapse.

The anecdotes related here tell the story:

I’m a 29-year-old woman and a self-employed writer. Before the ACA passed, I was rejected by every health insurer in California because I had an abnormal pap smear and was diagnosed with HPV, which can cause cervical cancer. I was shocked – not by the diagnosis, which is very common, but by the fact that I could not get any coverage (I am otherwise very fit and in perfect health). I am eternally grateful for Obamacare – not because of the cost (which at $181/mo for a $2000 deductible is much cheaper than the Freelancer’s Union insurance in had in NYC of $270/mo for a $10,000 deductible), but because it allows me to get health care at all.

What troubles me about the health politics of the Republican party is that they seek to dismantle both Obamacare and Planned Parenthood, thus rendering a woman in my position without any sort of affordable preventative care. And there are a lot of women in my position. HPV is not a rare disease.

I have a friend diagnosed with diabetes ten years ago whose insurance company dropped him. He spent years in limbo, paying for insulin out of pocket. Now he pays for a bronze plan that asks nothing about pre-existing conditions. To deny these care is cruelty itself. But it also points to the greatest fallacy in American political life: equating health insurance with health care. It’s too late to change this thinking.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

“How on Earth did this thing get so big, anyway? What were they feeding it?”

Hooks are overrated. Choruses are overrated. Oasis was overrated — in England at least. Tom Ewing on their 1998 number one “All Around the World,” destined to be most effective as a commercial jingle:

Back on “D’You Know What I Mean”, I said that Noel Gallagher seemed in love with the idea of long songs, but with no clear ideas of how to make them. That might go double here, except he does have one clear idea: do something like “Hey Jude”. “Hey Jude” still isn’t my favourite Beatles song, but it’s past time I publically admitted that I got that review wrong. I accused “Hey Jude” of exactly the same thing I saw in “All Around The World” – a bludgeoning, manipulative, Bigness for its own sake. But “Hey Jude” is, more than anything, a generous song – the Beatles invent the monster coda not just to make something epic but because it fits with the song’s story: OK Jude, we’ve tried telling you it’s alright, now we’re just going to have to show you.

Ewing’s referring to Noel Gallagher’s words as a “hug rock lyric” to which English bands are inexorably drawn. I thought of another song, but of recent vintage, also using a massed chorus for punctuation — a question mark in this case, not an exclamation point, and that has made all the difference.

PS: “All Around the World” is one of the few videos indebted to Tears For Fears’ “Sowing the Seeds of Love.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The evolution of Barack Obama

One of the more amusing bits about political journalism in the last five years since the world went mad over the election of a black centrist as president is watching reporters do all they can to avoid winking and elbowing the audience at the mention of Barack Obama’s “evolution” on same sex marriage. They knew what most of us knew, only they won’t say so aloud: that the president’s “position” was required, to use Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s words from another context, in response to the felt necessities of the time, i.e. nuanced bullshit calculated not to piss off rural voters in North Carolina and Indiana. Besides, in the nineties Barack the nobody said, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”

Jo Becker’s upcoming Sunday magazine piece chronicles this “evolution,” starting with preparations for the 2012 elections. Ken Mehlman played a part:

“We understood that this would be galvanizing to some voters and be difficult with other voters,” said Jim Messina, the manager of Obama’s 2012 campaign.

Caught between countervailing political forces, Obama called his top aides together and said that if asked again for his position, he both wanted and needed to drop the pretense and tell people where he really stood.

“The politics of authenticity — not just the politics, but his own sense of authenticity — required that he finally step forward,” Axelrod said. “And the president understood that.”

But if he was really contemplating an endorsement of same-sex marriage, his advisers urged him to do it in a manner that caused minimal political damage. David Plouffe, a mastermind of the 2008 victory and a senior adviser to the president, reached out to Ken Mehlman for advice. The previous year, Mehlman, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who engineered President George W. Bush’s re-election, came out as gay and began working with the foundation Griffin set up to fund the Proposition 8 lawsuit, attracting well-known G.O.P. donors, strategists and officials to the cause. Mehlman had already met with Obama over lunch at the White House and told him that people voted for him in 2008 because they viewed him as an idealist who would put politics aside and do what was right. Endorsing same-sex marriage would remind voters that he was still that man. “The notion that politically this is going to kill you — I don’t buy it,” Mehlman recalled saying.

Mehlman was of course right. The article takes for granted the president’s basic decency, gently rebuking him for embracing with fervor a position he had no problem claiming when he was a nobody running for state senator in 1996; and it grants Joe Biden even more space to show what a spineless hack he is. After sharing oleaginous anecdotes about his father scolding a Biden bro for picking on gay male neighbors, the former senator who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act said in 2012, “Who do you love, and will you be loyal to the person you love?” Four years after a moderator in the 2008 veep debate asked whether he believed in same sex marriage and he said “NO!” with the zeal of a new teetotaler, Biden said, “Things are changing so rapidly, it’s going to become a political liability in the near term for an individual to say, ‘I oppose gay marriage.’” The old pol knew.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The fact of a doorframe: Hide Your Smiling Faces

Male directors tend to lose their common sense when rendering boyhood, so Hide Your Smiling Faces‘ brevity and distancing devices are welcome. Brothers Eric (Nathan Varnson) and Tommy (Ryan Jones) swim, fight, and run in the backwaters of rural New Jersey. One day they find the body of Tommy’s friend Ian by the river, but long before this scene writer-director Daniel Patrick Carbone has signaled his intentions by opening the film with a shot of a snake in close-up in the act of swallowing a fish. Eric, Tommy, and their friends find a dead hawk. Cumulonimbi rumble.

Indebted to the lacuna-happy style of Terrence Malick, Carbone finds fresh ways of capturing the unexpected formality of pre-teenage relationships. Because boys aren’t taught a language that accounts for their changing bodies and erratic emotional states, relationships form and dissolve with surprising ease. Carbone introduces the boys by shooting them in profile in a doorframe, the grey and green of the swampy topography beyond them; it’s a variant of the famous John Wayne pose in The Searchers, about an older man who can’t figure out why he understands this terrain more than his feelings for a squaw niece; he can’t hate her like he thinks he should. This shot is a leitmotif. Eric and Tommy get their close-ups too but often they don’t get full scenes; Carbone leaves enough to suggest their fluency of movement: teaching Tommy and his dog to swim, setting a dead raccoon on fire. Like Malick, Carbone lets nature project what his script and actors can’t, sometimes hamhandedly, as when he overpowers a nice moment of the boys biking with electronically treated strings that blast like a space shuttle off a launching pad. Pillow shots of A/C wall units remind the audience that the family is poor (Tommy’s listening to a Discman is better). Forced to be solemn for their mom (Christina Starbuck) and beardo dad (Chris Kies, a ringer for Will Oldham), they freeze; forced to express the conventional emotions, Tommy shows an impressive stoic streak. But the older Eric can’t take it. He becomes sullen. This pubescent idyll threatens to crumble. He’s given to outbursts and shows of violence.

Hide Your Smiling Face traffics in the semiotics of adolescent sensitivity: cicadas, open windows, tear-stained eyes, muddy cheeks, swimmin’ in the river. “Do you ever think about dying?” Eric asks, which means Carbone wants us to think about dying too. The Yearling, To Kill a Mockingbird, Stand By Me (Eric has a stunning resemblance to the young River Phoenix), the less heralded Permanent Record, and last year’s fine Mud dropped young actors into rural etings so that hteir ruminations can get juxtapoed against the beauty/terror of nature. How Ian died (suicide or accident?), whose house Eric vandalizes, why the animal corpses accumulate – the audience gets no answers. Add this phenomenon to the 69-minute running time and opacity of the two central performances and the result is nearly flawless filmmaking of its kind, an evocation without fat, bathos, or significance poured with a ladle. I did miss the fart jokes though.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Five years! Five years!

To paraphrase what my fellow editors of The Singles Jukebox wrote to commemorate our fifth anniversary as an independent entity would be redundant, so let me instead laud the by now millions of words we’ve written since 2009 in the service of an ethos that insists on a catholic approach to music listening and writing. I’m proud that we were enthusiastic about Azealia Banks’ “212″ before she became a Twitter joke. We sure loved DJ Quik and Kurupt in 2009! We still love Taylor Swift. We’re ready to forgive Brad Paisley — eventually. For me TSJ is the millstone on which I’ve sharpened my writing. Reading undergraduate essays aside, nothing pares the brain of passive voice constructions, solecisms, and jargon than daily deadline writing, just like the company of Katherine St Asaph, Jonathan Bradley, Anthony Easton, Brad Shoup, Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy, and a dozen more. Thanks again to Edward Okulicz, the red-eyed editor in chief.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

“Anything could be a trigger”

My conclusions aren’t final but I tend to think putting what are in essence warning labels on college courses strikes at the very idea of adulthood and, yes, a college education. Oberlin College tabled the policy:

The policy said that “anything could be a trigger,” and advised professors to “[r]emove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.”

In the event that a work is “too important to avoid,” the policy said professors could issue a trigger warning by avoiding “spoilers” but giving a “hint about what might be triggering about the material,” and explaining its academic value.

For example, it said, “Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.”

The policy also said faculty members may “Strongly consider developing a policy to make triggering material optional or offering students an alternative assignment using different materials.”

It’s the instructor’s responsibility to explain how racism, violence, religious persecution, and the like work for or against the novel (never mind that “trigger,” a transitive verb, needs an object, so looking at that sentence I ask, “Trigger what?”). Warning students about these contents is a courtesy — I can imagine a human physiology course which will show pictures of fetuses doing so — but to prepare other material in the event that a student may find the assigned text too awful to bear would cripple curricula and overwhelm overworked dean’s offices; imagine the extra work of inspecting optional material for graphic content. Moreover, in Oberlin the burden falls on the department and professor assigning the material: “In the event that a work is ‘too important to avoid…’” as if a work might be less important.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

How the R&B chart died

Chris Molanphy, writing his most thorough and encyclopedic essay yet, chronicles the slow death of the R&B chart, once a place with its own history. How Freddie Jackson, Alexander O’Neal, Maze ft. Frank Beverly, and Rene & Angela scored so many R&B hits without the Hot 100 top ten at all baffled me when I dug deep into R&B a decade ago (I own a few Billboard magazines bought as as teen and remember seeing Jermaine Jackson’s “Don’t Take It Personal” atop the Hot Black Singles chart and thought what the hell). The deep look at the 1963 chart thrilled me. We will need the music biz equivalent of the Warren Commission to investigate why listeners loved Jimmy Gilmer & the Fireballs’s horrifying “Sugar Shack.” Then the R&B chart disappeared for more than a year. When it returned, “My Girl” was number one. We had recovered. The gist:

Billboard’s new accordion-style genre-chart methodology, with the Hot 100 playing the part of the presidential vote, is not much better than that. All the interesting quirks that make one song a better fit for the core R&B audience and another a pop crossover smash are eliminated. This approach isn’t the way Billboard’s genre charts are supposed to work; they are supposed to be based on a different sample of data—not just the Hot 100 data, editorially pruned by Billboard.

Emphasis on editorial: What is perhaps worst about this system is how Billboard, supposedly objective chart-maker, is now in the sorry business of trying to decide who qualifies for an R&B chart, with all the bizarre identity implications. Justin Timberlake and Eminem? In. The biracial Bruno Mars, or the Mariah Carey–like Ariana Grande? Out. I don’t have any better grasp on whether these artists should qualify for the chart than Billboard does. But the magazine is playing a role that used to be played organically—by shoppers at black retail stores and R&B radio—on a song-by-song, artist-by-artist basis.

The goal, of course, is to create a gauge to track the quirks of a chart as singular as its audience: “Restoring R&B/Hip-Hop Songs as an audience chart, not a genre chart, would uphold a great, multi-decade tradition.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment