Monthly Archives: November 2015

Love streams: Adele’s ’25’

attends the Oscars Governors Ball at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 24, 2013 in Hollywood, California.

John Seabrook:

If you are an Apple or a Spotify subscriber (I am both), you are faced with a quandary over what to do about “25.” In the old days, you would have just gone out and bought the album. But streaming complicates the picture. You don’t want to buy the record because that would be giving in to what feels like a heavy-handed attempt to make us purchase the music twice—to pay another ten dollars on top of the ten-dollar monthly subscription (I have the Apple family plan, which is fifteen) for an album that will show up on streaming sooner or later. But how long do you have to wait? It could be a couple of weeks, it could be a year, or it might not be until Adele gets her diamond. How long can you wait? At least with DVD rentals, you have a pretty good idea of how long it’s going to be. But Adele and Taylor are making up the sales-to-streaming rules as they go along.

The rhetorical question on which Seabrook bases these conjectures baffles me. He assumes only casual fans use Spotify or Apple subscriptions, therefore these casual fans wouldn’t buy a physical or digital copy of Adele’s 25 — really? (“You don’t want to buy the record because that would be giving in to what feels like a heavy-handed attempt to make us purchase the music twice”). Those who care about music in the United States, casual listeners and fans, rewarded 25 with the biggest first week in music biz history. I’ll ask a rhetorical question myself: has Seabrook been to Target? I visited mine the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. I saw a modest display in the shrunken and rather sad CD section, another by the registers; that’s where the action was. Waiting for a self-checkout lane to clear, I counted four customers buying copies of 25; one customer bought three copies. The pattern repeated all weekend, no doubt. I will bet one of my Merona dress shirts that some of those customers streamed the album or sampled it on YouTube. More consumers than Seabrook thinks use streaming services to sample the cuisine before buying.

I don’t know what Seabrook’s point is. He asks an awful lot rhetorical questions. “Album sales are profitable, but they are not the future of the music business—streaming is,” he writes for the sake of The New Yorker’s audience, many of whom bear the same relationship to ownership of 25 as the Target customers in suburbia: consider the album’s ubiquity in most stores of every stripe a fact of holiday life. Seabrook: “Could it be possible that the record business, pursuing a strategy of inflating sales by keeping an album off Spotify, Apple Music, or Deezer, is choosing short-term profits over long-term growth? (Perish the thought!).” Please, perish it. Unless I’m reading him incorrectly, he’s confusing record company profits and the revenue that artists make. That’s why Adele and Taylor Swift have reneged on streaming — the record companies are, by their calculations, less relevant than ever but just as greedy as in the days of Billy Joel and Paul McCartney making a dollar or whatever off every album sold. Of course Swift and Adele would allow their material on streaming services if their royalties were commensurate with their labor. To submit to streaming means acquiescing to caprices. I don’t understand why contributing to “significantly increased streaming subscriptions” would “benefit” artists when the system as it exists wants to drive them to penury.

Lost in the darkness of my love: Tunnel of Love


Remembering a time when Springsteen wasn’t hip is like imagining a time when it was illegal to serve alcohol. The period from 1992 to the release of the ’95 greatest hits compilation found The Boss experimenting with The Earring, The Goatee, and The Flowered Shirts and, depressingly, The Untucked Dress Shirt. To buy Tunnel of Love meant still believing in the boomer conception of Springsteen: the artist whom the Anthony DeCurtises of rockcrit thought offered insights into love; it meant believing in this conception while being twenty-one in 1995. It remains my pick for his best album, and, yeah, it was the first Springsteen album I bought — what about it?

The review below, rescued from the dying Stylus archives, is still one of the best pieces I wrote for them, rhetorical excesses aside.


Bruce Springsteen
Tunnel of Love

As a college freshman, I sometimes wanted a relationship so that I could endure a devastating breakup. My rituals of romance were crafted by Roxy Music’s Avalon and Al Green’s Livin’ for You (fortunately, my insufferability made practicing these rituals difficult, and these were the wrong models for my kind of lovin’ anyway, as I would learn a few years later). Hearing “Brilliant Disguise” on Bruce Springsteen’s 1995 Greatest Hits was epochal: this was the model for a sad adult love song. On an album whose defiantly generic title, indifferent sequencing, and chirpy liner notes by the artist himself signaled an intention to sully his much-vaunted integrity on so mercenary a product, “Brilliant Disguise” seared. I liked how the chugging rhythm imposed restraint on Springsteen’s vocal excesses, and admired the almost self-congratulatory manner in which the chorus reverses itself on its final turn around the bend—a neat Brill Building touch.

Maybe the millions of fans wooed by 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. reacted similarly: “Brilliant Disguise” was a Top Five hit in the fall of 1987; Tunnel of Love hit Number One; went triple platinum. Other musicians noticed: Everything But the Girl covered “Tougher Than the Rest,” the Mavericks did “All That Heaven Will Allow,” and Elvis Costello performed a scorched-earth version of “Brilliant Disguise” itself. And then? Springsteen spent what remained of the Reagan administration and most of George H.W. Bush’s in househusband bliss, sharing a home with backup singer Patti Scialfa, the woman who inspired the erections, illicit dancing, tortured second thoughts, and hypocrisy which scar the songs on the album’s second side like cold sores. Of all Springsteen’s records, Tunnel of Love is the one least tainted by expectations. Everyone says a kind word about it. A sizable claque argues that it’s a better record than its predecessor, certainly better than what succeeded it. Still, why doesn’t Tunnel of Love inspire the reverence its unassuming cousin Nebraska receives? Perhaps two sets of values canceled each other out: literary (prole narratives sung “in character”) versus “personal” (love as subject).

The reality proved too complicated for even Springsteen to handle. Tunnel of Love wasn’t so much his Double Fantasy as it was Plastic Ono Band written and recorded as if it was Double Fantasy. This is strong stuff. We hear a middle-class blowhard of moderate intelligence realizing that his capacity for accepting commitment shibboleths almost matches the limits of his sexual tolerance. In finding the ideal medium for the rote resignation that infected even the smartest tunes on The River or Nebraska—a resignation that was Springsteen’s idea of depth and maturity—he inches closest to the working-class archetype of Jon Landau’s dreams. The clumsiness of some of his lyrics here makes me wonder whether this was intended; did he want to think and write like an average guy?

Luckily the music compensates. A Nils Lofgren here or Roy Bittan there excepted, Springsteen handles all instruments. Thanks to his co-producers, Tunnel of Love sounds simultaneously electronic and acoustic: 1987 as 1977, arena bombast as bedsit intimacy; it’s obvious that years of playing in stadiums showed Springsteen how to make big gestures count as small ones. There’s no other album of its time like it. Tunnel of Love‘s synthesis reminds me a little of Bowie’s funk-as-electronic-metronomy achievement on Station to Station. Take “Two Faces,” essentially a demo, but elongated—deepened—by two solos: a guitar filtered through keyboards like Eno was ghosting; and a Farfisa, played I assume by Springsteen himself, answering the singer’s own challenge, “Well, go ahead and let him try.” On an album which questions whether a romantic union can prosper when both partners have wandering eyes, Tunnel of Love’s musical sophistication shows that Springsteen learned plenty from the E Street Band, the longest-lasting relationship of his life.

The oddest thing about the album is a sequencing that’s syncretic rather than conceptual. Third-person narratives, composed and sung with Springsteen’s usual arduous sincerity, comprise its least impressive songs. The Bo Diddley-esque opener “Ain’t Got You” is cute, and we get the point—love is always cute at the beginning, until, as the other tracks make clear, the business of living starts to wear you down—but the real start is the title track itself, whose metaphor is fleshed out by a four-note synth hook we’ll hear again on “Brilliant Disguise,” a Lofgren solo that’s Robert Quine-worthy in its ugliness, and Scialfa’s celebratory background whoops that make us wonder what Broose was doing to her in that there tunnel. While it’s easy, as Springsteen remarks, for two people to lose each other in the tunnel of love, it’s okay—they have to “learn to live with what you just can’t rise above,” which is the kind of bullshit couples confuse with wisdom (it’s inconceivable to imagine Springsteen putting these words in the mouth of his anti-hero in “The River”). Then “Two Faces,” quiet, surly almost, is a tonic; it’s Smokey Robinson wiping the Pagliacci makeup off to reveal Glenn Frey beneath. The rest is thoughtful filler. “Spare Parts” is what it is: musical and lyrical spare parts, burnished by the E Street Band, delighted to be voyeurs. I love the swagger and menacing minor chord keyboard swells with which “Tougher Than The Rest of Us” opens (another great mechanized guitar solo too), but I can smell Like A Rock-era Bob Seger’s body odor.

It’s tempting to argue that confusion is one of Tunnel of Love’s strengths; but Springsteen’s creative confusion and the doubts of his characters brings us dangerously close to the affective fallacy. We expect Springsteen to shrug—he’s always striven to make explicit the emotional parallels between him and his songs when the autobiographical ones falter—but when assessing the album’s impact the consequences are dizzying. Clearly his enthusiasm lies on the second half: the sequence from “Two Faces” to “When You’re Alone” is the bleakest ever to sit on a triple platinum Number One album (it’s shocking that “One Step Up” climbed as high as #13). Scialfa’s harmonies and the adorable twinkle in Springsteen’s voice purify the superstar bathos of “When You’re Alone,” preparing us for the next song, a master stroke that returns to “Ain’t Got You,” without the bromides. As a piece of music, “Valentine’s Day” is just gorgeous: strolling bass hook, synth chimes right out of Kraftwerk’s “Neon Lights” signifying the bliss Springsteen found in Scialfa. For counterpoint he sings grownup lyrics about commitment, fatherhood, and the kind of dreams that scare middle-class superstars.

If anyone wonders why Springsteen never created another Tunnel of Love, re-listen to “Valentine’s Day”—he didn’t need to. For all the well-observed hurt on display here, Springsteen, in life and art, found a happy ending. The sureness with which “Valentine’s Day” ends this album transformed most of Springsteen’s post-1987 work into John Mellencamp records. Some of them are even bleaker than Nebraska, but Springsteen has always confused parched with bleak. Lots of fans think he came out of that tunnel of love, but really, he’s still in there, and he ain’t in no hurry. The rest of us understand how Paul, George, and Ringo felt about having Yoko in the recording studio all the time.

And it’s going to get worse

Bill Clinton’s signing of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act was one of the crumbs thrown at liberal supporters in 1994. Written to combat a wave of violence against abortion clinics, doctors, and women who use the clinics, it made it a federal crime to injure or scare those seeking care. But after a tense years-long truce that ended a few months ago and culminating in yesterday’s shootings in Colorado Springs, the intimidation returns. Nina Liss-Schultz reports:

But harassment, threats of violence, and attacks against clinics have gone up again following the release of the Center for Medical Progress videos in July, according to recent National Abortion Federation court filings. That month, incidents of harassment against Planned Parenthood facilities increased ninefold compared with June, and those numbers continued to rise through August.

In the four months following the release of the videos, there have been at least four suspected arsons that targeted abortion clinics, compared with just one in all of 2014 and none in 2013. There have been at least five cases of vandalism since August. In comparison, there were 12 total cases of clinic vandalism in all of 2014 and just five cases in 2013, according to federation figures.

In one of the recent vandalism cases, a young man entered a Planned Parenthood in New Hampshire and destroyed medical equipment, phones, and computers. This month, an unidentified person smashed the windows of Kentucky’s only full-time abortion provider, twice in three weeks.

Anne, the executive director of the clinic, who declined to give her last name for security reasons, told Insider Louisville that in its 20 years of operation, the clinic had never before been vandalized.

Next year the Supreme Court will hear Whole Women’s Health v Cole, the challenge to a Texas anti-abortion statute that has wiped out the number of clinics in a state as large as my bald spot. Consider: in 2011, 93 percent of Texas counties had no abortion clinic at all, three years before HB2.

Singles 11/27

After years of indifferent singles that failed to catch anyone’s attention (I wasn’t fond of guest appearances on Fantasia and Janet Jackson singles either), Missy Elliott realizes that her strength is in minimalism. We rewarded her — and Pharrell’s not bad rap to a lesser extent. A shame my colleagues weren’t smitten with the title track from Eric Church’s surprise album. Much of my own initial interest stemmed from the realization that it was one of the album’s uptempo tunes. I still like the album though.

Click on links for full reviews.

Missy Elliott ft. Pharrell Williams – WTF (Where They From) (7)
Fleur East – Sax (7)
Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood (7)
Oh My Girl – Closer (6)
WSTRN – In2 (5)
Coldplay – Adventure of a Lifetime (5)
Arca – EN (5)
The Chainsmokers ft. Rozes – Roses (4)
Daddy Yankee – Vaiven (3)
Rachel Platten – Stand By You (3)

The legacy of Wilsonism

As I posted today and earlier this week, Princeton students protesting the deification of Woodrow Wilson object to his discriminatory policies as president. Resegregating the federal government ended the sinecure on which middle class blacks had depended since the Gilded Age. Keep in mind: the Republican Party had been the dominant political force since 1860, losing only two presidential elections (quick, name to whom they lost, and he wasn’t friendly towards black citizens either), still home to liberals who took seriously the efforts not just of Abraham Lincoln but Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, James Blaine, Roscoe Conkling, and other satraps unofficially guilty of varying degrees of corruption but apostles of patronage and for whom honoring a debt to the freedmen meant earning their vote (I’ll say it again: political imbecility notwithstanding, no president did more between Lincoln and FDR for the freedmen than Ulysses Grant). The Democratic Party by contrast was home to the likes of James Vardaman and “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman . Realignment was a generation away.

Gordon J. Davis‘ NYT column is the first account I’ve read by a descendant of one of those blacks demoted by Wilson, a civil servant at the Government Printing Office who made decent money and idolized Teddy Roosevelt:

But only months after Woodrow Wilson was sworn in as president in 1913, my grandfather was demoted. He was shuttled from department to department in various menial jobs, and eventually became a messenger in the War Department, where he made only $720 a year.

By April 1914, the family farm was auctioned off. John Davis, a self-made black man of achievement and stature in his community at the turn of the 20th century, was, by the end of Wilson’s first term, a broken man. He died in 1928….

….Consider a letter he wrote on May 16, 1913, barely a month after his demotion. “The reputation which I have been able to acquire and maintain at considerable sacrifice,” he wrote, “is to me (foolish as it may appear to those in higher stations of life) a source of personal pride, a possession of which I am very jealous and which is possessed at a value in my estimation ranking above the loss of salary — though the last, to a man having a family of small children to rear, is serious enough.”

When pundits wheeze about starting Conversations About Race, here’s the real thing. To watch a documentary on this forgotten chapter of American history would be a great service. And columns like Davis’ wouldn’t have been written without Princeton. I don’t want Wilson’s name effaced from Princeton’s walls — I want the veneration effaced.

Those Stalinist students!

The way in which we sentimentalize the most average experiences exemplifies what Marxists call false consciousness. Many complaints about Princetonians objecting to Woodrow Wilson tut-tut about what campus protest was really like, man. Corey Robin doesn’t believe it.

To listen to the critics of these Princeton students, you would think that until these students came along, there was a vital discussion happening on the college quad. On any given afternoon, undergraduates, in groups of four or five, would look up through the fall leaves and see Wilson’s name on one building, Nassau’s name on another, Firestone’s name (yes, that Firestone) on a third, and ask, wondrously, why is this building named after Wilson, Nassau, Firestone? Who were these men, what did they do, why should we be honoring them in this way? Then along come these students, with their nasty Stalinist ways, threatening to shut those vital little idylls down, with their simple zealous demand that Wilson’s name be cleansed from the campus.

I’ve been on college campuses since 1985, running the gamut from the most wealthy and elite to the most cash-starved and working class, and I have to say: that just isn’t my impression of how campuses actually work. I teach in William James Hall; the only person who ever asked me who William James was, was my seven-year-old daughter. Most students have other things to do.

If someone can post comments from the right wing commentariat regarding our purported ingratitude towards such a figure of American Progressive thought, I’d love to see them. Otherwise I’ll stick to Chris Hayes’ response:


It was ever thus.