Monthly Archives: December 2017

Worst Songs Ever: Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in November 2000.

In the first twenty-five seconds of “With Arms Wide Open,” Creed allude to three heroes: Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” (the guitar lick), the Beatles (“I [just] heard the news today”), and Eddie Vedder (Scott Stapp’s growl). This indigestible bolus was what it took for a rock band to hit #1 in 2000, the year when R&B and hip-hop and Clintonism reached new commercial peaks; in a sense Clintonism was to 2000 what MTV was to 1984. And 2000 was another 1984 for many acts: eleven months after Human Clay peaked, “With Arms Wide Open” ruled the roost, and, boy, did it linger. Continue reading

Worst Songs ever: The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in July 2009.

Look, I don’t care for “Celebration” or “Summer Nights” or other wedding and bar mitzvah perennials; caring about them is like caring about ice cubes. Giving people pleasure at social occasions is the Black Eyed Peas’ M.O. I don’t begrudge them this. Better the giving of pleasure than ordering a drone strike or signing a tax bill that dooms anyone who makes less than a million a year to penury. Continue reading

Online dating and performance

It began with AOL chatrooms. Lacking the courage to hit a gay bar alone, I sought the anonymity of polyphony. Anyone who remembers those late Clinton year online chat interfaces knows what I mean by that last noun: as many as fifteen people, flitting in and out of the room like a frightened nursery teacher in a classroom, shouting for attention with stats (“hi i’m HialeahPap4u 22”). While the chaos fomented, I’d click on users and read their official stats; if I liked what I read, I sent a private message, often suggesting our own chat.

Until Match refined this process and Grindr reduced the rituals of courtship to the minimum, that’s how things worked in 1999. I liked OkCupid because of its adaptability: those who sought hookups could take advantage of the more copious information that guests offered; those who wanted something deeper could use the byzantine and endless Q&A function to refine searches to the lowest integer. If you couldn’t find a Ft. Lauderdale man who loved Pokemon and Schoolboy Q and avoided drugs except Flintstone vitamins, it was on you.

In an effort to eliminate cyber bullying and stalking, OkCupid has announced the elimination of usernames. Heather Schwedel at Slate waves these concerns aside:

In fact, requiring users to go by their real names seems like a way to open them up to more harassment, since bad actors will have an easier time identifying people and contacting them off the platform if they wish to. The blog post doesn’t spell out whether users will be expected to use their full names or if, as on Tinder, something like first name and last initial will suffice, nor does it explain if there will a process for verifying that real names are being used.

Nor will it stop the creeps from using real names to create a fictitious identity. And should it? Part of the agony and ecstasy of dating, whether flirting with a stranger over Tanqueray and tonic or flirting via characters thumbed on your smart phone, is accepting the demands of sincerity and disclosure but keeping a space apart from which you can adjust the performing of sincerity and disclosure. What has changed since this announcement we’ll soon know.

Worst Songs Ever: The Who’s “You Better You Bet”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Worst Songs Ever: The Who’s “You Better You Bet”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #18 in May 1981.

About fifteen years ago over drinks with a friend I coined a subgenre: the Heaving Sleazo, after the aging white guy huffing and puffing about sex and drinking when nobody believes him anymore. I had Robert Palmer in mind, the Palmer who in the Power Station’s “Some Like It Hot” sang “We want to multiply/Are we gonna do it?” and in his own “Simply Irresistible” came up with polysyllabic ways of saying “I want your sex” (“She’s a craze you’d endorse/She’s a powerful force,” as if “she” were a Williams Sonoma blender). Think Rod Stewart’s “Love Touch” or “Crazy About Her.” In essence, these dudes were too old to be showing their dicks; they sounded ridiculous. Leonard Cohen and Bryan Ferry escaped this curse because their physical limitations confined them to a synth-comforted minimalism.

The Who’s penultimate American top forty hit predates this material, and it’s a prime example. At this point it’s a truism that MTV, starved for content in its early years, played videos from decidedly un-telegenic boomer-era stars. In 1981, fresh off a more successful than expected solo project called Empty Glass — it managed a top ten in “Let My Love Open the Door,” which The Who hadn’t managed in more than a decade — a drug-addled and reluctant Pete Townshend, devastated by the sordid death of drummer Keith Moon, reassembled his band for Face Dances. As usual the album did better than its attendant singles, and Kenney Jones, while no Moon, proved adequate. A few years ago I listened to it and, to my surprise, it held up. Concise and smart about balancing words and music, Face Dances would’ve been a decent epitaph had the band ended then, even without Moon, who played drums as if they were lead guitar.

But The Who didn’t release “Don’t Let Go the Coat,” “Another Tricky Day,” or “How Can You Do It Alone” ahead of “You Better You Bet.” Things start promisingly, a fabulous salvo: piano bang straight out of “A Day in the Life,” sequencer, guitar arpeggio, and multitracked Townshend-John Entwhistle harmonies singing the title hook. Townshend’s piano provides the momentum, aware that Jones will keep time and that’s about it. “I call you on the phone, my voice too rough from cigarettes,” Roger Daltrey rasps, and I believe him. So far so good. But the song, despite its attractive elements, falls apart. Daltrey is too rough — from cigarettes, from age, I don’t know. He can’t keep up. There is no ghastlier delivery and lyric in the Heaving Sleazo genre than when Daltrey and Townshend come up with, “You come to me with open arms/And open legs.” I mean, Daltrey inserts a pause between “arms” and “and” like a comedian expecting a drum roll. “Mortality catches up with pretty boys faster than with the rest of us,” Robert Christgau lamented in an otherwise complimentary review of Face Dances. And it gets worse. “I been wearing crazy clothes and I look pretty crappy sometimes,” Daltrey sings through what sounds like an emphysemic condition — the sixties icon approaching middle aged forced into wearing skinny pink ties. His delivery of “sometimes” makes you hate rock singing.

Although I haven’t heard It’s Hard, I doubt anyone else has either. “Athena” became the band’s last top forty beach head, but “Eminence Front” has instead become one of their perennials: a synthesized crawl through the hippie tropes in which Townshend and Daltrey are experts. “You Better You Bet” was a staple on album rock radio for most of my youth; I wonder if “Eminence Front” has replaced it. Having nothing in mind except keeping a groove and mangling a Dylan line as mantra, it eschews open arms, open legs, and the sound of old T. Rex. The Who I like advocates for an obscurantic self-reliance; Townshend, whose queer tendencies he has had a mixed record in accepting, wrote, I suspect, from the point of view of his decidedly heterosexual lead singer on “You Better You Bet.” I can hear the strain and see the flop sweat.

‘The Shape of Water’ kept afloat by too many familiar elements

Adept at treating fables as if they were real and daily life as if it were a fable, Guillermo del Toro goes all the way into romantic lunacy with The Shape of Water. The director of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth shows how a mute named Eliza (Sally Hawkins) and an aquatic creature who may be a river-god can connect despite conclusive anatomical and physiological differences.  A love story between man and fish, The Shape of Water also depicts, less interestingly, the hysteria of the national security state in the years before the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the story is familiar, another example of del Toro the (co-)writer failing del Toro the director. He wants to awe yet the results impress, frustrate, or bore. Continue reading

Hail fellow well read: The books of 2017

Through hurricanes, conferences, grading, writing, and blogging, I managed to read the following books in 2017, many of which were unfamiliar to me. Some modern classics disappointed me (Such a Long Journey), others impressed me (Salvage the Bones). The best historical biography I read was Noah Feldman’s tome on James Madison, which explains the development of the fourth president’s thoughts on government with a lucidity that rends the veil of obscurity behind which the forgotten Framer has hidden.

Now I must go: I’ve got a new 900-page Stalin bio to crack.

Felix Holt: The Radical – George Eliot
The Lathe of Haven – Ursula K. Le Guin
Swing Time – Zadie Smith
To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party – Heather Cox Richardson
* Loving – Henry Green
* Howards End – E.M. Forster
Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free – V.S. Prichett
The Spell – Alan Holinghurst
The Hothouse by the East River – Muriel Spark
Doting – Henry Green
Go Tell It to the Mountain – James Baldwin
Moonglow – Michael Chabon
James Joyce – Edna O’Brien
Inside the Clinton White House: An Oral History – Russell Riley
* The Ambassadors – Henry James
Reconstruction – Eric Foner
My Struggle, Book 3 – Karl Ove Knausgaard
Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984-1988 – Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus
Such a Long Journey – Rohinton Mimstry
Universal Harvester – John Darnielle
Richard Nixon: A Life – John A. Farrell
Bette Davis – David Thomson
The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France – David Andress
Ingrid Bergman – David Thomson
* The Woodlanders – Thomas Hardy
The Girl with Green Eyes – Edna O’Brien
The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien
Renoir: A Life – Pascal Merigeau
Tree of Smoke – Denis Johnson
A Colony in a Nation – Chris Hayes
Ike and McCarthy – David A. Nichols
* Vile Bodies – Evelyn Waugh
This Vast Southern Empire – Matthew Karp
Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character – Kay Redfield Jamison
The Persian Boy – Mary Renault
The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing
* The Day of the Locust – Nathaniel West
Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room– Geoff Dyer
House of Names – Colm Toibin
The Last of the Wine – Mary Renault
Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity – David Friedman
All the Conspirators – Christopher Isherwood
The Memorial – Christopher Isherwood
Isherwood – Peter Parker
The End of Eddy – Édouard Louis
Sula – Toni Morrison
* The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton
Fire From Heaven – Mary REnault
The Farewell Symphony – Edmund White
Anagrams – Lorrie Moore
Call Me By Your Name – Andre Aciman
The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency – Chris Whipple
The Ministry of Fear – Graham Greene
Solo Faces – James Salter
Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – David Garrow
Bette and Joan: Divine Feud – Shaun Considine
Race and Reunion – David Blight
Brighton Rock – Graham Greene
* Orlando – Virginia Woolf
The Comforters – Muriel Spark
Grant – Ron Chernow
Man Walks Into a Room – Nicole Krauss
The Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic – Charles N. Edel
The Three Lives of James Madison – Noah Feldman
Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture – R. Moore
Grant & I – Robert Forster
Napoleon – Andrew Roberts
Shelley: The Pursuit – Richard Holmes
Salvage the Bones – Jesmyn Ward

* Reread

The effect of repealing the individual mandate

A year ago I said to my friend Mari, “We’re in for it now” enough times that she wanted to kick my teeth in. It’s December 2017, and we’re in it: tax bill signed, GOP congressmen calling for investigations into Robert Mueller’s own investigation and Uranium One, GOP and Donald Trump sewn together so tightly that they’re feeding KFC into the same shared mouth. I like to believe that the vaporizing of the individual mandate has not destroyed the Affordable Care Act.

“President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement,” the New York Times observes, “is becoming more like what conservatives despise — government-run health care — thanks in part to Republican efforts that are raising premiums for people without government assistance and allowing them to skirt coverage.” In other words, the poor get some form of access to health care while Americans who can afford or get it through their jobs are off it entirely.

While the marketplaces, or exchanges, have struggled with a series of problems since they opened in 2014, Medicaid, administered by an experienced corps of state officials, has gone from strength to strength. Public appreciation for the program has steadily increased as people come to understand its importance in the health care system, including its central role in combating the opioid epidemic.

And though Congress has effectively repealed the requirement for people to have health insurance, federal subsidies are still available to low- and moderate-income people who want insurance. The federal government pays, on average, about three-fourths of the premium for more than three-fourths of the people who buy insurance through the Affordable Care Act marketplace.

Even officials who work for local health providers have admitted that the subsidies are the incentives, not the mandate or penalty. Nevertheless, four million more Americans will be uninsured by 2019 and thirteen million more by 2027, according to the Congressional Budget Office.