Counting down…



As an addendum to an earlier post today, here’s how my CHR station ranked the songs of 1988. Regional oddities abound (Elisa Fiorillo! Stryper! Will to Power!), not to mention the unsurprising #1.

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‘We invite you to luxuriate in secrecy’

On the centenary of Orson Welles’ birth, I thought it appropriate to mention the least heralded part of his career: the political activist, columnist, and radio personality whose liberalism, according to a new biography, drove him out of an increasingly mad United States during the McCarthy years. Setting aside the histrionics in the last third, where Welles sounds like Lionel Barrymore in court, the clip above is a marvel: an actor treating a deposition like a script, puncutated with pauses and careful stresses. The facts were grisly. As recounted by F.X. Feeney, Isaac Woodard Jr, back in South Carolina after a stint in the Pacific, was blinded by a Southern police officer in 1946 because he gave a bus driver some lip. “We invite you to luxuriate in secrecy,” he hisses, and this gorgeous line could also summarize the moviegoer experience. In the Woodard case Welles exploits his connection to the audience: luxuriating in secrecy may lead to roiling public anger (the officer who shot Woodard was acquitted and lived to ninety-seven).

As for the liberalism, another Feeney quote:

Welles had a feast-or-famine income that kept him filing for perpetual extensions through the years, but in cold fact he stayed current with the IRS, overall. No debt was ever so extreme that it would keep him abroad. In reality, he was steering clear of the studios’ blacklists of that witch-hunt era. He was firmly determined never to compose a self-compromised letter such as others he knew (John Houseman, Rita Hayworth) had been obliged to submit to TV network or movie studio bosses, stating their opposition to so-called communist front organizations, so they could be “cleared” for employment. “I’m here because I prefer my freedom,” as he told French interviewers. He saw himself as a citizen of the world, now, just as Chaplin did.

To honor him, I’ll watch The Trial and Chimes at Midnight again.

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Found the future not so bright: top ten of 5/13/1988


Twenty-seven years ago, the Billboard Hot 100 top ten looked like this. No R&B unless I count Whitney Houston and TTD, but batshit eccentricity still ruled.

10. Samantha Fox – Naughty Girls (Need Love Too)

Because she worked with Stock-Aiken-Waterman, Samantha Fox was considered a bass/freestyle fellow traveler in Miami; we heard this and the previous year’s “Touch Me (I Want Your Body)” and next year’s “I Wanna Have Some Fun” an awful lot. When skeptics dismissed the soullessness of disco, they might have had this single’s cheapo effects and Fox’s flat voice. I say the lack of affect helps, and it hits harder than Full Force’s 1987 Lisa Lisa hits. Who said a cheap tool is an ineffective one?

9. Icehouse – Electric Blue

How John Oates co-wrote this Australian act’s biggest American hit deserves a documentary. I suppose he influenced the call and response background vocals and the simplicity of the lyric (long ago Andrew Unterberger swooned to that chorus). Many preferred Icehouse when they third-rate Roxy Music magpies I can’t get past Iva Davies’ adenoidal vocal, the aural equivalent of his mullet, which even for 1987-1988 horrified children worldwide.

8. Johnny Hates Jazz – Shattered Dreams

CVS shoppers keep discovering this gem, one of the last sophisti-pop singles to chart (and one of David Fincher’s first video credits). It boasts quiet unexpected touches, like the ominous bass figure beneath the line “You said you’d die for me.” Plus, a bongo solo! Still, peaking at #2 for three weeks was a surprise. Thank Virgin Records and its PR muscle.

7. Taylor Dayne – Prove Your Love

Closer to a diva for whom dance productions were constructed instead of a dance singer (as the success of “Love Will Lead You Back” in two years would show), Taylor Dayne was another freestyle fellow traveler who could not have scored this hit at any other point. For some reason “Prove Your Love” is the least familiar of her impressive 1988 run of hits. It doesn’t stop: as dense as cordite, fierce guitar solo, a voice as huge as the Sears Tower.

6. Pet Shop Boys – Always On My Mind

Perfection. Take note of its top ten company and relisten to the arrangement – it’s Tennant-Lowe doing Stock-Aiken-Waterman. It’s Tennant-Lowe doing sarcasm. It’s Tennant-Lowe bidding farewell to an unusually accommodating American run.

5. Natalie Cole – Pink Cadillac

The phrase was in the air. Bruce Springsteen’s popular B-side (it and “Dancing in the Dark” made 1984’s P&J poll) got a Clint Eastwood, ah, vehicle and Natalie Cole’s comeback for its trouble. Like her other singles in this twilight zone between the drug fog and “Unforgettable,” “Pink Cadillac” sounds like a producer’s idea of hip and chart friendly.

4. Whitney Houston – Where Do Broken Hearts Go?

I’ve said repeatedly that the Whitney singles were the most worthless of her career, the much cited exception “Love Will Save the Day” notwithstanding. Overstated, pompous, empty. I can’t even call them “typical eighties” because hits these anonymous existed by the truckload in 1978 too. Where do broken hearts go?

3. Aerosmith – Angel

The aroma of a tear-stained jockstrap.

2. Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine – Anything For You

‘Sup, homegirl! Speaking of imperial phases, Gloria Estefan sure had one between 1987 and 1993; she even got a traditional Cuban pop album certified multiplatinum. The first of her three self-penned number ones, “Anything For You” is better than “Don’t Wanna Lose You” but slushier than “Can’t Stay Away From You,” identikit titles aside (none is better than this early ‘87 minor hit). I don’t mind them: she had a talent for going from A to B without fuss, for saying what she meant. A shame she slowly lost interest in faster stuff.

1. Terence Trent D’Arby – Wishing Well

No one under thirty remembers the hype or perhaps even “Wishing Well” – I hear “Sign Your Name” far more often. Not long ago I snapped up Introducing the Hardline…in a used CD bin for a couple of bucks: a solid record! Martyn Ware’s production outlines the contours of a post-Private Dancer pre-Massive Attack British soul, an unrealized promise. As for “Wishing Well,” it’s odd rather than great. The plickety-plonkety keyboard hook and the drum shuffle and something about kissing bandits under sycamore trees. Greil Marcus preferred his “Wonderful World” cover (“Wishing Well,” he wrote, “dies when you start hearing how many times he had to rehearse his laughter”). I wish D’Arby had released “Seven More Days” instead. Oh well – he didn’t listen to me. Or anyone. His best was yet to come and no one heard it.

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Charlie Hebdo redux


For a semester I’ve co-taught a class in which we ask students to examine rhetorical strategies used by media, politicians, and groups that want to start revolutions. The Charlie Hebdo attacks happened a week into the new semester. Without prompting several students made Glenn Greenwald’s point in their capstone projects:

Q: You’ve written a lot about the controversy over the PEN “Freedom of Expression Courage Award” being given to Charlie Hebdo, which has inspired a lot of writers to speak out in opposition. Why do you think this story is so important?

A: It’s actually kind of a complex issue. I think any decent person is torn by the fact that what happened to the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists is obviously vile and repugnant. They are obviously people who were exercising what should be their right of free speech … and they were killed because of it. And that’s a bad and dangerous thing.

On the other hand, the way in which that incident was seized on was designed, I think, to bolster a very tribalistic and dangerous narrative, which is that we in the West are the advanced, progressive, enlightened people and there are these kind of marauding hordes, who are primitive and violent and threatening to all things decent, called “Muslims” or “radical Islam.” And this incident was seized on to bolster that narrative as kind of propagandistically and powerfully as anything that I can recall probably since the 9/11 attack.

Katha Pollitt responds to this “narrative” stuff:

I don’t agree that Charlie is racist, and not just because Muslims are not a race. Charlie is against all forms of authoritarian religion (Le Monde analyzed ten years of Charlie’s cover stories and found far more attacks on Christianity than on Islam.) Indeed, it is blasphemous. Is that not an honorable left-wing thing to be? It used to be so, before we became so hopelessly confused about Islam: half the time we’re reminding each other that violent fundamentalists like the ones who committed the Charlie Hebdo murders are a tiny fraction of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, who are ordinary, nonviolent people of good will, and the other half of the time we talk as if the murderers are out to redress real wrongs—and understandably so, even if the target is poorly chosen. Which is it? I’m not sure that latter view serves Muslims well—it’s a bit like saying people who assassinate abortion providers represent Christians, and West Bank settlers represent Jews.

If I were to teach this class again, I’d ask students to spend time with several months worth of cartoons. Does their “context” become clearer? Do the cartoons reflect the point of view of the rightists whom the magazine often skewers?

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The return of the Honorable Dweeb

The Honorable Dweeb returns with more deep thoughts:

Every reflective person sooner or later faces certain questions: What is the purpose of my life? How do I find a moral compass so I can tell right from wrong?


What should I do day by day to feel fulfillment and deep joy?

Do what you do — have a sweet vermouth, post a column, have another double vodka on the rocks, go to sleep for a couple days, repeat the column’s drivel on NPR with E.J. Dionne?

As late as 50 years ago, Americans could consult lofty authority figures to help them answer these questions.

Once upon a time, dogs responded when I beckoned them.

Other authority figures were part of the secular priesthood of intellectuals.

John Dewey advocated pragmatism. Jean-Paul Sartre and his American popularizers championed existentialism. Hannah Arendt wrote big books on evil and the life of the mind.

Public discussion was awash in philosophies about how to live well. There was a coherent moral ecology you could either go along with or rebel against.

I can’t even paraphrase this drool. My students are better than this. “Presidents once lied without fear of scrutiny. Love Story sold a million copies. Swanson once made edible fish ‘n’ chip dinners to choke on while watching “All in the Family.” I’m gonna skip ahead because I’m chewing:

I thought I’d do my part by asking readers to send me their answers to the following questions: Do you think you have found the purpose to your life, professional or otherwise? If so, how did you find it? Was there a person, experience or book or sermon that decisively helped you get there?

Reading Witness and listening to Peggy Noonan’s scripts for Reagan didn’t work? Do you think you have found the purpose to your life?

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Relying on force: Ciara, Mariah Carey

Ciara – Jackie

Treated by her labels as if she were Burt Reynolds making a comeback, Ciara hasn’t made a single good album since 2007, although Body Party (2013) came close. This is closer. To quote Lloyd Sampson in All About Eve, the general atmosphere is very Macbeth-ish — what has or is about to happen? “I don’t drink but I’m takin’ a few shots tonight,” she announces on “That’s How I’m Feelin’,” sidling up to Pitbull (author of an inexhaustible supply of terrible come-ons) and Missy Elliott (author of Ciara’s first hits and much missed). I know nothing about Miss Harris and her loves, but Jackie plays like the album of a newly single woman, emboldened by several years of sexual experience. Surprisingly, Dr. Luke’s productions suit her best: the beatbox-anchored, music box-garnished “Lullaby,” the staccato chorus of “Dance Like We’re Making Love,” and “Kiss and Tell,” an R&B track whose electric piano recalls the Grace Jones sample in LL Cool J’s “Doin’ It” and is sultry and insinuating: when Ciara teases and winks and promises she’s at full strength. But she’s at less than full strength on the rest of the album, which means she positions herself as a supplicant when she once danced in place. You may have different ideas, but for me, Ciara is not the singer to whom I go for insistent protestations like “I’m a bad muthafucka I’m a bad muthahfuckah” on the title track. In 2006 she didn’t have to insist.

Mariah Carey – “Infinity”

Like most Carey singles since 2005, this new track recorded for a superfluous compilation relies on force to hold its discrete parts together. The force is waning though. Where the tempo of “#Beautiful” allowed her to get sultry, here the wan chorus exposes her weathered pipes. Here’s hoping she writes and sings like Marianne Faithfull in a decade; her voice is getting there.

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‘But Bernie Sanders is not Bukharin or Trotsky’


Loose and repetitious, but I can tell when Matt Taibbi gets excited:

But the lapdog mentality is deeply ingrained and most Beltway scribes prefer to wait for a signal from above before they agree to take anyone not sitting atop a mountain of cash seriously.

Thus this whole question of “seriousness” – which will dominate coverage of the Sanders campaign – should really be read as a profound indictment of our political system, which is now so openly an oligarchy that any politician who doesn’t have the blessing of the bosses is marginalized before he or she steps into the ring…

…When I first met Bernie Sanders, I’d just spent over a decade living in formerly communist Russia. The word “socialist” therefore had highly negative connotations for me, to the point where I didn’t even like to say it out loud.

But Bernie Sanders is not Bukharin or Trotsky. His concept of “Democratic Socialism” as I’ve come to understand it over the years is that an elected government should occasionally step in and offer an objection or two toward our progress to undisguised oligarchy. Or, as in the case of not giving tax breaks to companies who move factories overseas, our government should at least not finance the disappearance of the middle class.

Now for a well-reported and well-sourced profile on Sanders, warts and all…

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