Can you understand my pain? Dylan’s worst songs

My picks for worst Dylan songs are failures of imagination, excuses for singing like a minotaur, or okay songs hobbled with contemptible arrangements. I could have added “Chimes of Freedom,” a Kristofferson cover with a terrified children’s choir, or “Dark Eyes” (I can’t better Theon Weber’s description: it’s transparently on Empire Burlesque so that stupid people can think it’s the one good song).

10. “Disease of Conceit” (Oh Mercy).

I don’t mind Dylan’s unexpected stresses; they function like iambic pentameter set to the rhythm of English subtitles. But the piano hook is anemic instead of stately, and he indicts an abstraction which can’t rebut the indictment (“What Good Am I” took care of that two tracks earlier).

9. “To Make You Feel My Love” (Time Out of Mind).

Garth Brooks, Billy Joel, Bryan Ferry are among the artists who have covered a plaint so generic that Garth Brooks, Billy Joel, and Bryan Ferry sing it exactly the same.

8. “When The Night Comes Falling From the Sky” (Empire Burlesque)

The arrangement gallumphing in an effort to persuade the principals that they’re having a good time, this 1985 oddity got more sensitive treatment at the hands of the E Street Band. And Roy Bittan’s piano is put to effective use. I’m all for Dylan and octagonal drums (“Tight Connection to My Heart” is one of his best songs), but he and Arthur Baker sound nauseated; Dylan in fact sings as if in the grips of nausea. The two-note blasts of synth horns, the backup singer echoing every word, not a single space for the song to breathe – all as gauche as Dylan’s earring. Plus, the song ain’t that good anyway (“I can hear your trembling heart beat like a river” is a detestable line, with or without Dylan’s Count Chocula vibrato.

7. “Neighborhood Bully” (Infidels)

Not about himself.

6. “Gotta Serve Somebody” (Slow Train Coming)

Not about God. The gleam of the studio rock arrangement makes it worse (and endless).

5. “Hurricane” (Desire)

I had to stop myself from including half of Desire. Admittedly, the fiddle and bongos catch the ear, but telling a straightforward narrative is hell on Dylan’s singing; it has moments where he is audibly trying to catch up with a verse.

4. “Lenny Bruce” (Shot of Love)

“LENNY BRUUUUCE IZ DEEEEEEAD.”

3. “Is Your Love in Vain” (Street-Legal)

Archie Bunker yelling at Edith’s corpse, to the accompaniment of saxophones.

2. “Joey” (Desire)

No reason why this fantasia about a king of the street and child of clay has to be eleven minutes and why the drums sound more garish than Empire Burlesque‘s electrobeats.

1. “Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35” (Blonde on Blonde)

Sure I hate fun. I like New Orleans funeral brass bands though! Dylan’s other song that stopped short of hitting #1 (guess the other) is worth playing once: at sixteen, thinking, “Oh my god he said STONED!”

The triumph of irony: ‘Love & Friendship’

Kate Beckinsale made her film debut in Kenneth Branagh’s broad-as-a-barn Much Ado About Nothing, in which she projected quiet good sense as Hero. The problem with being a British actor is that you remain a British actor, cast as if by edict in adaptations of classics: Emma, The Golden Bowl, Cold Comfort Farm followed. For some reason she paid attention to Ben Affleck in Pearl Harbor, and she made me nostalgic for Sharon Stone when she played the villain in the “reboot” of Total Recall. With the exception of the little seen pleasure Cold Comfort Farm and as the girl who’s rarin’ to go sexually in Laurel Canyon, Beckinsale made little impression beyond teeth and diction. She created the impression of powers in reserve, of strengths suppressed. In Love & Friendship, she plays Lady Susan, a widow with no prospects but an acerbic manner, an available daughter, and considerable flirtation powers. She is a vinegary delight in her best film performance.

I’m also tempted to call Love & Friendship the best film Whit Stillman has made if Damsels in Distress and Metropolitan didn’t exist. But so sharply etched and well paced is Love & Friendship that it represents the apex of the director’s preoccupation with the way in which irony and persiflage conspire to peak behind the surfaces they’ve already constructed. Not to tear them down, however. Whether he sets his films in discos or a country house in the 1790s, Stillman understands the value of these surfaces.

Giving kinetic energy to Jane Austen’s epistolary novella is one of the pleasures of this adaptation. When the film opens, Lady Susan Vernon leaves the Langford cottage of the Manwarings, to the accompaniment of Lady Manwaring’s tears. What drove them out the audience will learn soon enough. Lady Susan and her American friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) find refuge at her brother in law’s, a squire named Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) as thick as a tick and given to ponderously quoting the likes of Rousseau (the specter of two recent revolutions haunts the picture). His wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell) doesn’t trust Lady Susan, especially when she sets her sights on Catherine’s brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuels). He of course stands to inherit a quite a bit of money; that he’s also rather handsome is a bonus. In short, marriage to Reginald would end Lady Susan’s peripatetic ways. “We don’t live – we visit,” she says during one moment of crisis.

Matters look safe until Lady Susan’s boring daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark in dreadful curls) arrives at the Vernons’, having fled from a purgatorial boarding school. A girl closer to Reginald’s age and without the taint of her mother’s reputation reassures Catherine and her parents the DeCourcys, who also take a liking to that dullness and her singing. Sensing disaster, Lady Susan summons Sir James (Tom Bennett) to run interference on Frederica. If Austen’s novella were better known Sir James would be considered the stupidest character in English literature: he insists there are Twelve Commandments, calls the district in which the Vernon home is located “Church Hill,” and considers a plateful of peas as the most delightful of God’s creations (“tiny green balls!”). Stillman lets these scenes play at length, small masterpieces in the comedy of embarrassment. As the Vernons catch on to Lady Susan’s perfidy, the good woman’s schemes become subtler and more brazen – a paradox whose logic looks inexorable when her opponents realize she’s concealing her motives in plain sight; no one, the men least of all, wants to believe in the duplicity of women. “Facts are horrid things,” Lady Susan explains.

A filmmaker who began his career regarding the camera as one would a poisonous snake in the corner, Stillman has learned what to do with the possibilities of space. His compositions track people interacting with backgrounds instead of photographing them against decor. To keep his film at a brisk ninety-one minutes he eschews conventional exposition: iris eye lenses and subtitled introductions do just as well, stressing the project’s artifice. Richard van Oosterhout’s images are precise without lapsing into Merchant Ivory’s static, stolid prettiness. Whit Stillman adapting a Jane Austen novel is like Bryan Ferry covering Dylan: on first glance a calculated move, the reek of complacency unavoidable until the right vehicle coaxes nuances from a lifetime of study. Avoiding the expected thing like Mansfield Park frees Stillman to shape a work of juvenilia to his own sensibilities (maybe Stillman agreed with Metropolitan‘s Tom Townsend after all: “A notoriously bad book”). The character of Alicia, for example, he Americanizes, possibly for Sevigny’s benefit, possibly to write original zingers about the horrors of living in America (Alicia’s husband she describes as “too old to be agreeable, and too young to die”).

But Lady Susan is Love & Friendship‘s plume, the only character on the make in Austen’s fiction who’s a free agent and, in Stillman’s rendering, a figure to treasure, not pity – the most significant alteration of Austen. “I am done submitting my will to the caprices of others,” she remarks, and to a remarkable degree she keeps her word. Love & Friendship shows how a woman can find self-satisfaction within the strictures of a society that offered only a handful of roles: wife, widow, old maid, and governess, the last inspiring chills every time Lady Susan hears about Frederica’s education. More than up to the task, Beckinsale shows a facility of gesture that earns Stillman’s closeups; Lady Susan has mastered the rules because the rules have mastered Catherine, Alice, and her own daughter. She will not allow herself to be crushed.

In a recent post, Richard Brody wrote that the conservatism manifesting itself in a Whit Stillman film shows:

the ongoing work, by society’s most daringly creative and appetitive members, to quietly but decisively overthrow its elements of misrule and to have a hell of a good time in the process—and, as a result, leave a trail of mercurial beauty that others will then imitate to create what is widely known as fashion and is gathered up under the name of style.

“Style” carries too much weight. As a “mode of irony” Lady Susan’s style assures her navigation through a hazardous landscape: by reveling in frivolity she banalizes her in-laws and daughter’s codes of conduct. On the other hand, for Barcelona‘s Fred Boynton and Metropolitan‘s Nick Smith style is the weapon of a cornered animal, the recourse of the powerless. Aware that a culture less amenable to their attitudes is encroaching on them, they realize their irony offends no one; it’s a reactionary tool, a reminder of what they’ve lost. But at the end of Love & Friendship Lady Susan can smile at what she’s gained.

Here’s to your eyes and my final demise: My favorite things

PM Dawn – The Bliss Album…? (1993)

A path untraveled for nineties R&B. Plush. Acoustic guitars and pianos on percussive beds as soft as layered cotton. Boy George as a duet partner. Sampling “Father Figure” four years before LL Cool J did. A “Norwegian Wood” cover. A riposte to Tribe Called Quest’s “Butter” called “About Nothing (For the Love of Destiny)” that endorses a woman’s right to change anything she damn pleases about her looks and style. Dangerous health problems have kept Prince Be from continuing the career he deserved.

The-Dream – Love Hate (2007)

At the time Terius Youngdell Nash looked like he’d recorded a Welcome to Our World or Armchair Theater: no more than a producer’s demonstration of prowess. Although the public preferred to think “Umbrella” wrote itself, I’m still infatuated with his first album’s dinky songs about fast cars and purple kisses, closer to secondhand Prince like Ready For the World than to Prince himself. He loves the whoops and ehhs he lavished on his clients so much that he reprises them himself (Best hook: Nash using falsetto to imitate the girl saying, “Fuuuckk that niggaaaaaa…”). But Love/Hate isn’t merely a formal triumph: “Livin’ a Lie” remains one of Rihanna’s most committed performances.

Boz Scaggs – Middle Man (1980)

Consensus has chosen Silk Degrees as the keeper, but I give this album the edge because the band has an edge. Not since his Duane Allman days has Boz rocked this hard (“You’ve Got Some Imagination,” where he’s barking the lyrics). A hit when released in 1980, Middle Man is best known for “Jojo,” a gorgeous ode to a swinger out for kicks in Manhattan. From its cover to the Continenal touches in the arrangements like accordion, there’s a sense in which the album captures the exhilaration of a newly divorced man. Take “Simone,” an even better accordion-drenched valentine to a tough-hearted flirt that stops for a string and synth interlude co-orchestrated by David Foster; it evokes a similar interlude in Joni Mitchell’s “Down to You.”

The Clinton email kerfuffle

So the Department of State’s inspector general released the report that FOX News and ratings-starved “Morning Joe” have anticipated since the New York Times broke the story fifteen months ago: Hillary Clinton did not keep the emails she received on the personal account for which she got no permission to use and didn’t bother asking permission to use; and she used a mobile device for official business.

As a result, Donald Trump can keep calling her Crooked Hillary without feeling guilty as he did today when he announced in a stage whisper that the DNC was grooming Joe Biden to replace Bernie Sanders. As a result, Mark Halperin can justify his existence for another few news cycles. And I’ve tried to look at the incident with same, ah, ire as my GOP brethren.

How I understand it:

* She violated State Department policy;
* I don’t doubt she may have wanted to blur the lines between personal and public email accounts;
* The concurrent FBI investigation has to show criminal intent to violate the policy;
* The State Department’s cybersecurity is so bad that AOL in 1996 had better fire walls.

From the report itself:

.OIG identified more than 90 Department employees who periodically used personal email accounts to conduct official business….OIG also reviewed an S/ES-IRM report prepared in 2010 showing that more than 9,200 emails were sent within one week from S/ES servers to 16 web-based email domains, including gmail.com, hotmail.com, and att.net….A former Director of Policy Planning wrote: “State’s technology is so antiquated that NO ONE uses a State-issued laptop and even high officials routinely end up using their home email accounts to be able to get their work done quickly and effectively

Is there something I’m missing? What is she alleged to have done other than to be devious about wanting to hide material? Even assuming the basest motives, the servers at State were so antiquated that it’s possible a cyber attack would have breached them anyway.

Readers know I supported Sanders in the Florida primary. I do not want Clinton as the Democratic nominee. But mistakes rise to the level of perfidy when the Clintons are involved. If anything, I resent the Clintons for consistently underestimating the enemies they claim they’re so adept at parrying. From firing White House travel office employees to lying to a grand jury about a blow job, she and her husband seem to expect exasperated allies and livid liberals to defend them.

This nonsense reminds me of 2007 when we learned the Bush administration was firing lawyers for not following orders. When Congress asked for them, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez said they’d been destroyed. We later learned that the Republican National Committee ran the server using the domain gwb43.com. I wasn’t offended until the last part — imagine the croakings of doom had we learned Debbie Wasserman-Schultz’s DNC was hosting Clinton’s communiques with Vladimir Putin. This fact adduced the conclusion that the Bush administration existed as a pantomime scripted by the RNC. But the public didn’t stir. It assumed this shit always happens.

Without ideas or violence: best Bob Dylan tracks and albums

Who’s the dude praising a woman’s sexy body in that godawful croak? My introduction to Robert Zimmerman was auspicious: the solo verses on the Traveling Wilburys’ “Dirty World.” Over seven hundred overdubbed acoustic guitars, a “Yakkety Yak” sax, and four other cooing coots, Dylan went on to celebrate her five-speed gear box — and disposition too!

I wanted more. Fortunately, the library carried several Dylan tapes: the recent Oh Mercy, and the beloved Down in the Groove and Infidels, available in their butt ugly CBS/Columbia Records tape casings. The spooky you’re-sinking-into-gumbo jive of Oh Mercy fit the voice; I was especially pleased with “Man in the Long Black Coat” and “What Was It You Wanted” (the harmonica sounded like a bird lost amid mangroves). Then I forgot about him for a few years. I bought Blonde on Blonde in 1994, struck by “Stuck Inside of Mobile…” and the jingle-jangle nonsense of “I Want You” (because love is supposed to make you recite bad poetry and shout glittering phrases); the rest was my being stuck with the double album blues again. The serious Dylanology began three years later: all the major albums and Desire, Empire Burlesque, Shot of Love, and at the end of the phase a new album called Time Out of Mind I played out of a sense of unecumbered duty. Today it still sounds like a geezer working himself up to a despair he can’t express in melody or song, and thanks to the instrumental overdubs it’s clear he tried hard to; the effort reminded me of a late eighties Bryan Ferry album, actually.

But I loved the rest and played them a lot. Too young for boomer politics but old enough to stand beside them in a voting booth, I don’t struggle with situating Bob Dylan in history and have even less patience with the mythos. He’s a man who wrote wonderful songs and quite a few terrible albums and stuck them on albums which rejected wonderful and terrible songs like a heart might the wrong blood type. From 2001 to 2009 he never sung with more humor; he had learned how to turn his rancid lusts and shitty ideas about women into a joke on himself, and hired players to give his shanties, 12-bar blues, Bing Crosby ballads, and bar band rock a zip and elegance he had never approximated. He doesn’t act like the genius his fans think he is, which means the joke is on us too.

Here are my contributions to ILM‘s Dylan ballot. Last week I posted best Dylan covers and Dylan’s worst performances.

1. I Want You
2. It’s All Over Now Baby Blue
3. I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine
4. Foot of Pride
5. Tombstone Blues
6. Jokerman
7. Day of the Locusts
8. Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)
9. Love Minus Zero
10. Lonesome Day Blues
11. Every Grain of Sand
12. Positively Fourth Street
13. I’m Not There
14. Blind Willie McTell
15. Things Have Changed
16. Please Mrs Henry
17. Buckets of Rain
18. High Water (For Charlie Patton)
19, Series of Dreams
20. Girl of the North Country
21. Brand New Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat
22. Mississippi
23. Sign On My Window
24. Man in the Long Black Coat
25. Sugar Babe
26. Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again
27. Isis
28. Brownsville Girl
29 Dear Landlord
30. Clean Cut Kid
31. Going, Going Gone
32. Po’ Boy
33. Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)
34. Nettie Moore
35. Tangled Up in Blue
36. This Wheel’s On Fire
37. Nothing Was Delivered
38. As I Went Out One Morning
39. Huck’s Tune
40. Going to Acapulco
41. Tryin’ to Get to Heaven
42. Dirge
43. Sweetheart Like You
44. Workingman Blues
45. Highway 61 Revisited
46. Don’t Think Twice It’s Allright
47. Went to See the Gypsy
48. If You See Her, Say Hello
49. Sara
50. Shooting Star

ALBUMS

1. Blood on the Tracks
2. “Love & Theft”
3. Highway 61 Revisited
4. Bringing It All Back Home
5. John Wesley Harding
6. New Morning
7. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
8. Planet Waves
9. Oh Mercy
10. The Bootleg Series: Volumes 1-3.

David Brooks: solving problems ‘from the bottom up’

David Brooks posted his latest suicide note:

There are just a few essential reads if you want to understand the American social and political landscape today. Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids,” Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart” and a few other books deserve to be on that list. Today, I’d add Yuval Levin’s fantastic new book, “The Fractured Republic.”

Books written by the author of The Bell Curve and a National Review contributor.

Levin starts with the observation that our politics and much of our thinking is drenched in nostalgia for the 1950s and early 1960s. The left is nostalgic for the relative economic equality of that era. The right is nostalgic for the cultural cohesion. The postwar era has become our unconscious ideal of what successful America looks like. It was, Levin notes, an age of cohesion and consolidation.

Ask black members of the left or women about fifties nostalgia. Labor and management did work out a truce after the convulsion of the immediate postwar years, so maybe that’s what David meant before word count interfered…

But we have now moved to an age of decentralization and fragmentation. At one point in the book he presents a series of U-shaped graphs showing this pattern.

“The book has pictures.”

The share of national income that went to the top 1 percent declined steadily from 1925 to about 1975, but has risen steadily since. We are a less economically cohesive nation.

Bully for you, David, a Republican, for acknowledging a reality. Because you like parallelisms, however, the pedantry of your thinking abjures the simpler sentence, “Most people who weren’t William F. Buckley, Jr. believed the tax system was fairer.” But he’s gathering steam, preparing yet another explanation for how bobos in paradise live. They – we– are, you guessed it, form part of an “individualistic, diffuse society.” Again, I’m not sure women, blacks, and gays thought they belonged in a collectivist, consolidated society for which Brooks purrs his own nostalgia.

Our politicians try to find someone to blame for these problems: banks, immigrants or, for Donald Trump, morons generally. But that older consolidated life could not have survived modernity and is never coming back. It couldn’t have survived globalization, feminism and the sexual revolution, the rising tide of immigration and the greater freedom consumers now enjoy.

Translation: “Sigh.”

Our fundamental problems are the downsides of transitions we have made for good reasons: to enjoy more flexibility, creativity and individual choice. For example, we like buying cheap products from around the world. But the choices we make as consumers make life less stable for us as employees.

What the fuck is he on about?

Levin says the answer is not to dwell in confusing, frustrating nostalgia. It’s through a big push toward subsidiarity, devolving choice and power down to the local face-to-face community level, and thus avoiding the excesses both of rigid centralization and alienating individualism. A society of empowered local neighborhood organizations is a learning society. Experiments happen and information about how to solve problems flows from the bottom up.

Don’t count on Social Security and Medicare, hippies. Raising the retirement age and block grants are the way of the future.

It’s not 1830. We Americans have a national consciousness. People who start local groups are often motivated by a dream of scaling up and changing the nation and the world. Our distemper is not only caused by local fragmentation but by national dysfunction. Even Levin writes and thinks in nation-state terms (his prescription is Wendell Berry, but his intellectual and moral sources are closer to a nationalist like Abraham Lincoln).

Where did we get from atomization to collective action?

Who stands to lose in November

In his assurances that foreign entanglements, trade deals, immigration problems, and domestic criticism must be squelched, Donald Trump has the mien of a fascist — just look to me, he promises, and I’ll ignore constitutional norms. “Fascism” has lost its power to define because it has lost its power to shock. Opponents have called strong leaders fascists many times since 1945. Opponents of Barack Obama have called him a fascist because of the frequency with which he resorts to executive orders. I needn’t linger on the differences: Obama signed those orders when congressional support proved impossible, their reach limited to federal employees for the sake of besieged minorities, many of whom could plausibly claim Fourteenth Amendment protection. Moreover, never once since 2007 has Barack Obama spoken about wanting to abrogate the consent of the governed. Adam Gopnick:

He announces his enmity to America by word and action every day. It is articulated in his insistence on the rightness of torture and the acceptable murder of noncombatants. It is self-evident in the threats he makes daily to destroy his political enemies, made only worse by the frivolity and transience of the tone of those threats. He makes his enmity to American values clear when he suggests that the Presidency holds absolute power, through which he will be able to end opposition—whether by questioning the ownership of newspapers or talking about changing libel laws or threatening to take away F.C.C. licenses. To say “Well, he would not really have the power to accomplish that” is to misunderstand the nature of thin-skinned authoritarians in power. They do not arrive in office and discover, as constitutionalists do, that their capabilities are more limited than they imagined. They arrive, and then make their power as large as they can.

Do you what my most pessimistic scenarios about a Trump presidency show? A newly empowered coalition of bigots making life hell for the transgender population and Muslim students. It means a Congress more likely to engage in grotesque acts of chicanery. The cowardice of the Megyn Kellys and the rest of the GOP commentariat matters less than the surrender of the Lindsey Grahams, with his immense elite cred and fetish for intervention everywhere and at all times. While I still don’t think we have enough pissed white people in America who’ll vote for him, this is the wild-haired galoot who will set the tone should liberals fail to vote in December.

She’s got the moves, baby: Madonna’s best album tracks

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Revisiting after Prince’s death Eric Henderson and Sal Cinquemani’s 2013 list of Madonna’s best album tracks led me back to 1989’s co-write/co-production “Love Song,” which in turn reminded me of what I already knew: boy, Madonna has more essential album tracks than her singles reputation suggests, and they proliferated after 1989.

To note those tracks is difficult at first: the eponymous debut kept “Think About Me” and “I Know It” to itself yet I heard the former often in early ’85 when public ardor matched her chart ambitions (Jellybean’s Madonna-written “Sidewalk Talk” got Miami airplay much earlier than its Hot 100 chart peak, for instance). But if I concede that Like a Virgin is her weakest long player, then I have to explain what “Stay” is doing on my list and I don’t feel like it; like all her Stephen Bray collaborations from this period its joi de vivre justifies itself (you can do what you like with “Shoo-Be-Doo”). Plus — it’s got firework effects! Even greater is “Over and Over,” whose symmetrical title emphasizes the will to power inseparable from physical and even spiritual attraction that was Madonna’s contribution to the language of pop semiotics. Plus — it’s got the best wordless hook of her career, rendered even more thundering in its You Can Dance remix version.

Matters were still simple for True Blue and Who’s That Girl; not much unreleased shit. Two of my closest junior high girl friends adored “Jimmy Jimmy,” while “The Look of Love” was a British top ten but a nothing here beyond the playground; I included it because it’s the period’s most poignant ballad, showcasing the best of co-writer Patrick Leonard’s atmospheric keyboards and in “All the books I’ve read, and the things I know/Never taught me to laugh, never taught to let go” some of Madonna’s best ah-bitter-fame lyrics.

Finally, let me point out “Supernatural,” a Like a Prayer outtake with fabulous self-harmonizing and sharp drumming that shows what a roll she and Leonard were on in 1989.

1. Words (Erotica)
2. Bye Bye Baby (Erotica)
3. Over and Over (Like a Virgin)
4. Let It Will Be (Confessions on a Dance Floor)
5. Where’s The Party (True Blue and You Can Dance)
6. Stay (Like a Virgin)
7. Love Tried to Welcome Me (Bedtime Stories)
8. He’s a Man (I’m Breathless)
9. In This Life (Erotica)
10. Forbidden Love (Confessions on a Dance Floor)
11. Gone (Music)
12. Love Song (Like a Prayer)
13. Sky Fits Heaven (Ray of Light)
14. Thief of Hearts (Erotica)
15. Till Death Do us Part (Like a Prayer)
16. I’d Rather Be Your Lover (Bedtime Stories)
17. Impressive Instant (Music)
18. Forbidden Love (Bedtime Stories)
19. Swim (Ray of Light)
20. Gang Bang (MDNA)

Weekly Roundup 5/22

filtner+cowboy

As I revise HTV’s theme, I’ve introduced a new feature: links to several of the week’s best posts. Thanks for reading.

Recipes for favorite cocktails and what you need to bring to my house.

Man and beast co-habitate in rodeo film ‘Neon Bull’

Awful words and phrases that I have forbidden my students from using.

The best albums of 2016 to date.

On never knowing a sane GOP in my lifetime.

Reviews of Anonhi and Corinne Bailey Rae albums.

On the unevenness of Blonde on Blonde. Yes, that Blonde on Blonde.

Welfare reform and its discontents

Twenty years after Bill Clinton signed a bill that promised to “end welfare as we know it,” he has kept his word:

Nationally, the number of people receiving cash assistance has fallen to 4.1 million, from 12.3 million in 1996. In Arizona, the number of cash assistance recipients has plummeted to 20,495, from a monthly average of 155,000 in 1996-97.

The 1996 law reversed six decades of social welfare policy, eliminating the individual entitlement to cash assistance for the nation’s poorest children and giving each state a lump sum of federal money with vast discretion over its use. The amount of the main federal block grant has remained at $16.5 billion annually since the law was adopted, but inflation has shrunk the value of that money about a third.

In addition, the reach of the program has been greatly reduced.

In 1996, for every 100 families in poverty, 68 received cash assistance. That fell to 23 for every 100 in 2014. And in a dozen states including Arizona, the number is fewer than 10 in 100.

In response, the very poor have devised what Kathryn J. Edin, a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, called survival strategies. Some, she said, sell plasma, a blood component. Some collect metal junk and aluminum cans and sell them to scrap dealers. Some move in temporarily with friends or relatives to save on rent.

“We’ve shredded our cash safety net,” said Ms. Edin, who examined those tactics in her book “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” written with H. Luke Shaefer.

From teens filling income gaps to the peripatetic schedules of service sector jobs eating up parenting time, the welfare reform bill looks like a textbook example of crooked intentions producing foul results. Shorter welfare rolls look more attractive during boom times.

Also, note how states “racialized” the policy, thanks to the transformation of welfare into block grants:

In other words, people had become so focused on racial issues that race really drove the patterning. They were not necessarily conscious of it; it was race-coded and below the radar for most people. But all of the states with more African-Americans on the welfare rolls chose tougher rules. And when you add those different rules up, what we found was that even though the Civil Rights Act prevents the government from creating different programs for black and white recipients, when states choose according to this pattern, it ends up that large numbers of African-Americans get concentrated in the states with the toughest rules, and large numbers of white recipients get concentrated in the states with the more lenient rules.

Thanks, Bill Clinton.

Thirteen ways of looking at a Bill bird

This Vanity Fair profile of Bill Clinton proposes several ways in which the forty-second president can help or hinder his wife’s presidential campaign. His rhetorical powers, once considerable, look uneven:

He recalled his college roommate, a Marine who had been stationed nearby; but what seemed like a quick geographical touch point soon spun into a rambling tale about the man’s sister-in-law, who had a disabled daughter who now lives in Virginia. “I watched her grow up,” Clinton told the puzzled crowd. His attempts at eloquence—“We don’t need to build walls; we need to build ladders of opportunity”—weren’t his best, and when he delved into politically relevant topics, like terrorism, he sounded less like a man who used to receive daily intelligence briefings than like an elderly relative at the holiday table. “The people who did San Bernardino,” Clinton explained, “were converted over the social media.” All the while, his hands—those (with apologies to Donald Trump) truly giant instruments that he once used to punctuate his points—now shook with a tremor that he could control only by shoving them into his pants pockets or gripping the lectern as if riding a roller coaster. For more than half an hour, Clinton went on like this, losing more of the crowd’s attention as each minute passed, until a few people actually got up from their chairs and tiptoed toward the exits.

Until he was heckled, or, rather, Hillary was about Benghazi, after which he sprung like a mouse sniffing at a trap. The response was a “a tour de force,” according to the writer, but the heckler had already left the building.

The story quotes the usual vassals. I didn’t care for the innuendo about what monkey business might have happened on a certain plutocrat’s airplane in the early 2000s. A couple of paragraphs raise the Bernie Sanders question as if it hadn’t occurred to the rest of humanity that the Clintons dislike him. I chuckled at the cynicism about the effect of Clinton’s purported affairs on millennial voter (“And I hate to say this about my grandkids, but with gay marriage and Caitlyn Jenner and whatever else, they’re a lot more liberal and loose on that stuff. I just don’t think they’ll care,” a fogey said, loving to say it). He’s eager to repudiate the chapters of his legacy that affect Hillary’s electoral chances except when challenged by youth.

But the pal of Bono and Davos frequenter hasn’t forgotten his humble roots, according to the article:

More often than not, the ex-president finds himself staying in hotels with nothing resembling a presidential suite; he typically overnights in Holiday Inn Expresses and Quality Inns. His aides say he’s the least prissy member of his small traveling party—caring only that his shower has good water pressure and that the TV has premium cable so that he might watch San Andreas or one of the Fast & Furious movies before he drifts off to sleep. When he wakes, he often makes coffee for himself in his room.

Who makes coffee for himself using those in room pots? The former president. Ya can’t take Arkansas out of him.

Singles 5/20

An excellent week, from which consensus rarely emerged. I heard signs of life in Garbage’s fourth or fifth comeback single; maybe my affection for Version 2.0 keeps me caring. And the #1 song in the country has a lightness and litheness that its forebears lacked. A wizardly singer, Pharrell is a below average singer, so of course I’d rather hear Justin Timberlake sing “Happy.” With Timberlake’s usual acumen, though, I bet he realized in 2013 that the world would loathe him as soon as “Happy” got adapted by human resources vice presidents for summer team building exercises. I wasn’t much cop for last weekend’s Eurovision winner: it sounded too professional for my ears. It’s possible Jamala will age better in December than Anohni will. We’ll see.

Click on links for full reviews.

Anohni – Drone Bomb Me (8)
Ngaiire – Diggin’ (8)
Justin Timberlake – Can’t Stop the Feeling! (7)
Garbage – Empty (7)
Margo Price – Hurtin’ (On the Bottle) (7)
Jamala – 1944 (6)
Radiofish – Perfect Human (6)
Zedd & Kesha – True Colors (4)
Radiohead – Burn the Witch (4)
Tyler Glenn – Trash (3)
Lali – Único (3)
Daddy Yankee – Shaky Shaky (3)
Mura Masa ft. Bonzai – What If I Go? (3)
Florida Georgia Line – H.O.L.Y. (2)