The Worst Pop Songs of 2016

Friends, it's been a hell of a year. Mostly in bad, bad ways. But you know what else was bad, in a glorious, redeeming way? 2016's pop music, which chugged along as reliably as ever, full of forgettable hooks and risible lyrics. In a year when politics turned upside down and cherished celebrities died in droves (I started writing this on Tuesday, and 5 minutes after I wrote this sentence, I learned of the deaths of both Carrie Fisher and Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, which for me is probably the saddest death of the year, though mitigated a bit since the man was 96), pop music was there for us in its comforting mediocrity, lulling us into sweet numbness with its lukewarm-oatmeal aesthetic.

As usual, I listened to way too much of it (the things I do for you people). What's glorious about the songs that stuck out to me this year as the worst of the worst is the way they seemed to fall into stereotypical narratives thrown around in the world of pop music. So instead of a numbered list (though I will designate the final song as the worst of the year), I'm presenting them this year with a title attached to each to explicate its place in a pop music geography that, no matter how much the sounds change, remains suspiciously static. These songs are all listed as being released in 2016, and in general they are those that I discovered via Top 40 Radio; I may be a masochist, but in a lazy way, and I'm not going out of my way to plumb the crappy depths of subgenres like country or metal. I also have no interest in trawling through MySpace to find the actual worst song of the year, which was likely written by a teen garage band from Sioux Falls with a name like Cannabus Stop! So, without further ado:

Justin Timberlake - Can't Stop the Feeling!

The narrative: Pop star who sells out and produces an unbelievably irritating song for a major motion picture

I'll say up front that I'm a secret(ish) admirer of Justin Timberlake, who consistently creates impeccably produced, undeniably catchy pop songs. And I'm not surprised that Timberlake, who lends his voice to the Trolls movie, would also step in to provide an upbeat sonic confection to slap onto the soundtrack.

What baffles me about this song is this: Timberlake is the proud father of a small boy. You'd think that would make him sensitive to the concerns of parents, who regularly have to deal not only with being dragged to subpar animated films to get their kids to shut up for a few hours, but also the songs churned out from those films, scientifically designed to be screamed over and over again by young, tone deaf voices. (Remember "Let it Go"?). So why, why, why would Timberlake inflict this monstrosity of a song on the world? It manages to combine the utter catchiness of Timberlake's oeuvre with the earbleed-inducing stupidity of, well, all children's music. What's extra strange is that it keeps the basic format of a Timberlake song (I'm gonna get you on the dance floor and sex you up with my sexy body) and runs it through the PG scrub filter, in such a way that the resulting lyrics are somehow more creepy than they would be otherwise. Gems like "All those things I shouldn't do/But you dance, dance, dance/Ain't nobody leaving soon so keep dancing" sound like they should be coming out of a loudspeaker at a North Korean labor camp. 

(Special note: the video I've chosen for this song is not the official music video - rather, it's the "GoNoOdle" workout (?) video for kids. Nothing else seemed to capture the glitter-and-poop aesthetic of the song so well)

Meghan Trainor - Me Too

The Narrative: Musician who disastrously tries to swap out their signature style for another, even worse one.

When Meghan Trainor forcibly crowbarred her way onto the national pop scene a few years back, she did it via a "sassy" approach to body positivity and a misbegotten affection for doo wop. Her "hit" "song" "All About That Bass" melded these two traits together into a Frankenstein of a song that was, all in all, a little too bland to be truly offensive, but a few good notches below listenable.

All I can say for Trainor's 2016 hit "Me Too" is that it makes me long for the halcyon days of "All About That Bass". To paraphrase the great Walter Sobchak, say what you want about the tenets of faux doo wop, at least it's an aesthetics. Trainor has here traded in her somewhat distinct (however lame) sound for a factory approved, heavily technologized monotone. It does her no favors.

As for the lyrics, well, I get that she's presumably trying to poke fun at her celebrity status here, but the result is so toothless it couldn't slurp down a bowl of creamed corn. Seriously, this is a song about celebrity so anodyne it makes Nickelback's "Rockstar" seem like it flowed from the pen of H.L. Mencken. The most irritating thing about the lyrics is the fact that the song can't even nail down its tenses properly: "I thank God every day/That I woke up feeling this way". Hand that sentence to a high school English teacher and watch their head explode as they try to parse it. A consolation prize should be handed out to the couplet "My life's a movie - Tom Cruise/So bless me baby, achoo", truly a masterwork of blurting out the first thing that comes into your brain when in a lyric-penning session.

I will admit though, I'm pretty jealous of that giraffe hoodie she's wearing in the video. If that's the sort of thing celebrities get to wear with impunity, sign me up.

American Authors - Go Big or Go Home

The narrative: awful white men inexplicably get a second chance.

Look, if you are reading this blog post, you are presumably a sophisticated, web savvy person, so I don't want to insult your intelligence by assuming you haven't already seen the video of the greatest sports press conference of all time. But, it's relevant here, so here's our man in Havana Dennis Green to set us up:

 

No other video can adequately sum up how I feel about American Authors. If you know me well, you probably know of my long running feud with this band's turd of a 2014 single "Best Day of My Life" (second in intensity on my list of feuds behind only my vendetta against Jai Courtney), which is the song equivalent of a #blessed selfie. Look, I guess I'm not too surprised that we didn't instantly relegate American Authors to the realm of national embarrassments never to be spoken of again, like Warren G. Harding or the Macarena craze, but I am disappointed.

And here they come again, only two years later, with a song which seems utterly indistinguishable from "Best Day of My Life". Paean to YOLOing? Check. Godawful banjo? Check. Lead singer with the most smug, punchable face this side of Milo Yiannopolous*? Check and check!

At the same time, I have to admire American Authors for their complete dedication to crafting songs as devoid of content as possible. I've written before about the plague of vagueness in songs, but these guys are spearheading the effort to make such vagueness an art form. They are the avant guarde of the local craft inanities movement. Spend a few minutes analyzing lines such as "I gave the dice a roll/And then we lost control/You know we're lucky that we survived" or "It's getting crazy/We're gonna do some things that we won't forget" and then tell me honestly that the lyrics to this song couldn't have been written by a Van Wilder promotional Bro Phrase Generator. Shame on us, America, shame on us.

*If you don't know who this is, count your blessings, and please, please don't look him up.

Twenty One Pilots - Heathens

The narrative: indie act breaks through, becomes immediately insufferable.

Look, all power to Twenty One Pilots, who spent a good number of years touring and building a fan base before finally breaking through this year into the mainstream. I haven't absolutely hated the several songs they have had chart this year, but there's something about their sound that just sticks in my caw. Thankfully they released "Heathens" as a part of the Suicide Squad soundtrack, so I have a convenient receptacle into which to channel my disgust.

Full disclosure: I haven't seen the Suicide Squad movie (I'm not that much of a masochist), but from everything I've seen or heard it appears to be the celluloid incarnation of a Hot Topic Store. If that's true, then "Heathens" is the sweaty, pimply cashier manning the Hot Topic register in his "I Hear Voices. They Don't Like You" t-shirt. The only bright spot about the song is that it appears to be built entirely around a sample of a bullfrog letting loose its barbaric yawp in the Louisiana bayou.

Seriously, this is the sort of song that comes across as profound to teenagers who wear the same Slayer shirt day in and day out, until a nice crust has built up around the armpit area. And why not? Lyrics such as "Just because we check the guns at the door/Doesn't mean our brains will change from hand grenades". Whoah, dude, are you telling me that you are seriously disturbed and that your brain works differently than others, so much so that you must compare it to an explosive device? Too deep for me. I bet that you're so strange that faces come out in the rain, too, right?

I love that the end of the song involves the person being addressed throughout, and told to stay away, joining up with the group - BECAUSE THEY'VE BECOME STRANGE TOO. Given that the true fans of Twenty One Pilots (many of whom are presumably unhappy that the washed masses have decided to like them as well) call themselves the Skeleton Clique, this feels appropriate. Like Juggalos, but somehow less interesting, Twenty One Pilots fans are true believers - normies need not apply.

The Worst Song of the Year

Goo Goo Dolls - So Alive

The narrative: rock has beens return from county fair duty for one last shot at glory, instead produce drivel.

Look, I'm not sure I can scientifically measure the terribleness of every song this year, so perhaps "So Alive" would get edged out by another song if the process were more rigorous. But here's why I gave it the edge: not only is it absolutely terrible, it certainly feels like the least necessary song of the year. It has been 18 years since Goo Goo Dolls released "Iris", their only song to really leave its mark on the public consciousness. Who was begging for another round of plain oatmeal from one of the blandest acts in pop music history?

Yet here they come, saddling up for one more ride. Even though they're getting to old for this hit... making scene, they've bravely saddled forth to save us from the perils of actually memorable music. And so they bring us "So Alive" a song destined to be played on loop at anesthesiologist offices, accountant conventions, and any other gathering spaces where those in charge can't risk the mood turning mellow - they don't want things to get that out of hand.

I would analyze some of the lyrics, but I'm afraid staring at lines like "Breaking down the walls in my own mind/Keeping my faith for the bad times/Get up, get up, stand like a champion/Take it to the world/Gonna sing it like an anthem" will put me to zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Oh, sorry. Where were we? Oh yes, "So Alive". Remember two slots ago when I talked about the YOLO aesthetic of "Go Big or Go Home"? Well, "So Alive" is what happens when that aesthetic gets drained of any spark of energy. It's a kid who's been put on Ritalin even though what he really needs is a few laps around the backyard. It's the sort of song you would hear in a movie montage about conformity - be it in the Soviet state of the halls of a high school - and think, "Now that's a little too on the nose for a music cue". It's the "punt on 4th and 1 in your opponent's territory" of songs. But maybe that's what we needed in 2016. In a year of craziness, perhaps we just needed a song to slowly drain all feeling from our bodies. Thank you, Goo Goo Dolls, for numbing our pain just a little with your mediocrity.

A Scrupulously Scientific Ranking of (Almost) All the Pixar Films

I try to avoid making too many pop-culture related lists, for my own health and that of those around me. But I had a special request from a friend to provide my ranked list, with brief commentary, on every Pixar film. In this day and age, it isn't too surprising to have seen all of Pixar's output, especially since they only release one film a year and have enough cultural cachet to be considered an event studio. Still, I have seen them all; well, almost. Here now, without further ado, is a full ranking.

Not Ranked: Cars 2

As I said: almost all. I've actually heard a few dissenting voices from people whose taste I generally trust, but it hasn't been enough to motivate me to check out what almost everyone else considers to be the worst Pixar film. One of these days I'll get around to it, for the sake of completion, but... not yet. (I have seen a staggeringly awful shorts compilation called "Mater's Tall Tales" which I think counts as adequate penance for my sin of omission).

Tier 4 - Take 'Em or Leave 'Em

16. The Incredibles

Consider the gauntlet thrown down. I know many people who rate this among Pixar's best, but it has always left me cold. Sure, it has great voice work (it's never a bad idea to have Holly Hunter around) but, honestly, the whole thing feels a bit by the book. It's fun, but not much else. And director Brad Bird already directed his superhero masterpiece five years earlier, with the far superior (and much less slick) The Iron Giant.

15. Cars

Is there anything notable about this film other than it continuing the fine tradition of having great actors play their last roles in animated films? In that category, Paul Newman's turn here is a good bit above Orson Welles in the Transformers movie, but a good bit below Jimmy Stewart's classic turn as Wylie Burp in Fievel Goes West. Again, an uninspired story can't be overcome by good voice acting. Though it is far, far superior to its recent remake, the bland Robert Downey, Jr. dramedy The Judge. (Seriously: I can in no way advocate you watching The Judge, but if someone forces you at gunpoint, pay attention to how it's a subpar ripoff of Cars).

14. Finding Dory

Sadly Pixar's most recent effort is one of their (wait for it) most forgettable. I really wanted to get invested in Dory's search for her parents, but the whole movie felt shoddily constructed by Pixar standards; shaggy, but not in a charming way. I don't generally buy the charge that Pixar wrings cheap emotion from its films by preying on the insecurities of parents, but yeah, that fits the bill here.

13. Brave

People seemed really disappointed in this one when it came out, perhaps because the weight of expectations on it as the first Pixar film with a female protagonist were so great. Sure, the film's troubled production history leads to some unevenness, but it's definitely not a bad film, and it takes more chances than the films I've ranked below it. The real problem comes in comparing it (unfairly, I know) against other vaguely Celtic/Hibernian animated films that had come out around the same time. Compared to Tom Moore's The Secret of Kells, to choose the best of the bunch, Brave feels singularly uninspired.

Tier 3 - The Good

12. The Good Dinosaur

For some reason this film failed to connect to audiences when it came out, and while it's not a masterpiece, I think its relative failure is a bit unfair, and thus it stands in my mind as one of the most underrated of Pixar's films. Sure, the story beats are fairly familiar, with a father son relationship at its core, but the film zags where many zig, and includes some of the strangest scenes Pixar has ever put on film. Plus - and I know this isn't everything - the film is stunningly gorgeous.

11. Up

Let's get this out of the way first: Up has the most moving, heartbreaking opening 10 minutes of any animated film, ever. It's a masterclass in compressed storytelling, one that will endure as one of Pixar's high points for a long, long time. But that doesn't excuse the rest of the film, which fails to live up to that opening. It's amusing and diverting, and sometimes touching, but it also involves too much flab and folderol to be one of Pixar's best.

10. Toy Story 3

The third and lowest ranked entry in the Toy Story saga suffers from the reverse problem that afflicts Up. The film wanders through some amusing hijinks but then, out of nowhere, takes a dark, brilliant turn and becomes a meditation on mortality, featuring talking toys. It's quite a transformation, and saves the film from being a forgettable mediocrity.

Tier 2 - The Really Good

9. Monsters, Inc.

Every film remaining on this list is one I would recommend without reservations, anytime, anywhere. They have a little something extra that elevates them above what's come before. In the case of Monsters, Inc., that could be one of several things. It could be the killer chemistry between John Goodman and Billy Crystal (who for once uses his extremely punchably persona for good, not evil). It could be the sneaky-great emotional core of the film, the friendship between Goodman's Sulley and Boo, the young girl he befriends. It could even be Randy Newman's crackling score. At any rate, Monsters, Inc. manages to be one of Pixar's more entertaining films while still hitting the emotions hard.    

8. Wall-E

I think it counts as a huge plus in Wall-E's favor that I've only seen it once - when it first came out - but I've still ranked it this high. In many ways Wall-E feels daring, from its wordless opening half hour to its willingness to imagine a society bent out of shape, almost irredeemably, by human greed. In my memory the social commentary gets a little heavy handed in the second half of the film, which keeps it from climbing higher on this list, but it's still an achievement well worth celebrating.

7. A Bug's Life

Chances are good that you don't remember much about A Bug's Life. Sandwiched in between the first two Toy Story films, Pixar's second film has been unjustly lost to history. A clever retelling of Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, A Bug's Life shows Pixar's early potential for taking weird premises and having fun with them. The insect world gives the film an endlessly fascinating palette to work with, and the studio uses this to great effect. I might be a little biased in its favor due to the presence of Dave Foley, but this is one that's well worth a re-watch if you haven't seen it in awhile.

6. Toy Story

Ah, the one that started it all. Having rewatched Toy Story not too long ago, it's really remarkable how much of Pixar's future success lies in the blueprint of this film. Strong emotional relationships (here both vertical, between toy and owner, and horizontal, between toys); moments that capture the sad wonder of childhood; and of course lots and lots of humor that hits its mark. Though the studio would go on to make better films, their first one still feels special.

5. Monsters University

If putting The Incredibles last is my most controversial low ranking, I suspect this will be my controversial high ranking. I'll just go ahead and say it: Monsters University is Pixar's most underrated film, and in some ways their most grown up. People seem to have gotten distracted by its genre trappings (oh no, a campus comedy!) and ignored the ways in which the film digs beneath the cliches of that genre to make a startlingly adult film about failure. The basic lesson (not everyone can succeed at some things, no matter how hard they try) is deeply counter-cultural, and utterly refreshing. Huge plus thanks to Randy Newman's peppy marching band score.

Tier 1 - The All Timers

4. Finding Nemo

Ok, maybe I am predisposed to have this film wreck me in ways that others aren't. As a father of three small, precious children, and a natural worrier, I immediately connect to Marlin's anxieties about his son. But beyond this emotional center, there's a whole lot to love about Finding Nemo. One of Finding Dory's biggest mistakes was to move largely away from the ocean setting (opting instead for a marine preserve). But exploring the ocean lets the animators' imaginations run wild, and cook up some of the most fun set pieces in any Pixar film. The whole movie feels infused with a sense of wonder at the vastness of the world.

3. Inside Out

I'm not a fan of the "Pixar slump" theory, the idea that in the last decade or so the studio has been largely down on its luck (relatively speaking), with films that are fine but nothing special. However, it's easy to believe that narrative when the "bounce back" film is as good as Inside Out. By exploring the inside of a human person, Pixar came up with one of the few spaces vast and mysterious enough to rival the ocean as a playground. The film plays its combination of emotions for many laughs, but also argues for the essential need for sadness in human life. Combined with Monsters University it's almost as if Pixar was working as an agent of good against the shiny personal-improvement-industrial-complex. All to the good, I say.

2. Ratatouille

Now here's a surprise. The first time I saw Ratatouille, I thought it was pretty good, but nothing special. Only on multiple rewatches has the film unfolded for me and revealed its intricate layers (like a good croissant). In some ways Pixar's most meta film (all about the joys and struggles of creating art), the film tackles criticism, pleasure, and natural ability with verve and gusto. It provides endless sensory delights, from the colors to the lovingly designed shots of food to Michael Giacchino's flawless score. Set your jaw firm and do your best to resist, and I bet you'll still walk away feeling refreshed about life.

1. Toy Story 2

Well, here it is. It seems inevitable in some ways - a safe, boring choice for the best Pixar film. But what can you do when the obvious choice happens to be the best? Not only the greatest Pixar film, but probably the greatest sequel ever, it improves on the initial film in every way. It manages to be a thrilling adventure film while never sacrificing the emotional weight (seriously, the scene where Jesse the Cowgirl sings about her old owner will wring tears from any but the most heartless monster). The central choice Woody faces - to be safe, or to be loved - is one of the most basic questions about human existence. And all this from a  film that was originally supposed to be a cheapo, direct to video sequel. Sometimes life goes contra the plan, and thank goodness for that.

And A Little Child Shall Lead Them

If you spend, well, any time on the Internet, it's probable that you've encountered the particular joke format "I wish I loved anything as much as X loves Y". It's a pretty good, flexible construction for when people or animals or rocks or whatever seem to have a disproportionate affection for something. Usually it's a trivial comparison, like "I wish I loved anything as much as Kel loves orange soda," or "I wish I loved anything as much as the kitten in this video loves the spoken word poetry of Gil Scott Heron". I've been ruminating on it recently in a more serious vein, though, thanks to my son.

Like most five-year-olds, he has various enthusiasms that seem to shift depending on mood. He's been super into construction, and dinosaurs, and various other young kid obsessions. Recently, though, he has invested himself in a more complete way than he has before, this time in the plight of endangered animals. He has labeled himself an "animal studier" tasked with protecting endangered species, be it from hunting, habitat destruction, or anything else. He has jumped into this fascination with both feet, which has led to some unintended consequences for our family. Many days he will go on and on about a particular endangered species, or mourn one already extinct (he's very sad about something called a golden toad). At times it's easy to start feeling like the author of this article (Warning: strong language).  

But then I witness the depth of his conviction, and I'm really moved. He recently celebrated his fifth birthday, and a week or so after the fact, he told us, out of the blue, what his birthday wish was: that he could save all the animals from going extinct. His convictions have not just caused internal change, though - they have radiated outward to affect the way we live as a family. A few months ago he discovered that orangutans were endangered, thanks in large part to habitat destruction. He then discovered that this habitat destruction is intimately tied to the palm oil industry, which cuts down huge swaths of the Indonesian rain forest in its insatiable quest for the golden droplets of oil.

My son became very concerned, especially given the huge number of items at every grocery store that use palm oil as a cheap alternative to other kinds of binding agents. He began to research things that had palm oil, and soon produced an ultimatum: our family could not, in good conscience, continue to eat palm oil. No Oreos. No processed peanut butter. And - despite the very great sacrifice involved - no Ritz crackers. This last item caused no end of consternation, even tears, as he loved using them to make "My famous peanut butter and jelly cracker sandwiches". But, though it hurt him to do so, he gave them up willingly for the sake of the orangutans.

You might think that a five year old would quickly forget this dictum, but for some reason it has stuck, and we have been palm oil free for several months now. He's drilled us hard to remember, and we always check the labels of food when we're out shopping. He's even indoctrinated his sister (age 3) so that she can be the watchdog when he's not around. Again, I want to emphasize the sheer number of packaged products these days that feature palm oil; this has been a major change to our shopping habits.

In spite of the inconvenience, I'm incredibly proud. Not just at his diligence in keeping up the boycott, but in his initial love for animals that led him to this sacrifice (he's not quite Abraham, but peanut butter cracker sandwiches are a pretty big deal for a five year old). It really does make me wish I loved anything as much as he loves animals. I mean, I think I love him, and his sisters, and his mom, and my various other family members and friends, that much, but what else? I can't think of too much. I tend to be a detached person, weighing things in the balance. Henry Adams' line from The Education of Henry Adams about how "He never got to the point of playing the game at all; he lost himself in the study of it, watching the errors of the players," resonates a great deal with me. Though there are advantages to my habit of detachment, it can too easily become a prison of my own making.

So I need these period shocks to my system, reminders that life requires real attachment, real love. Even though I get cranky about missing certain foodstuffs, then, I'm happy to be led by the example of my son. On our recent trip to Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, he learned about the threat to the Great Lakes from Asian carp, which have already invaded the Mississippi River to devastating effect. As I write this he's busy drawing diagrams to figure out how to block the access of Asian carp to Lake Michigan. This after he spent the whole car ride home bringing the subject up every two minutes. Like all holy fools, he can be a bit insufferable, but it's mostly proof of a conviction deep enough to make me feel guilty about my own inaction. I hope he never stops loving deeply, and helping me do the same.

Summer Reading Recommendations (For People Who Hate Summer)

At this point the summer reading recommendation post has become as hallowed a national tradition as other perennial summer activities, like telling your wife you put on sunscreen even when you didn't, or pretending to be interested in baseball. I thought I would mix mine up a bit, though, and write a reading recommendation list for people (like me) who don't like summer. Because let's be honest: summer is the worst season. Don't blame the messenger, it's just statistics.

What follows are a list of books I thought would make for exceptionally terrible beach reading (though, to be fair, every book makes for terrible beach reading because you constantly have to adjust yourself to hold the book up right, and sand is always getting in between the pages, and on top of everything else you have to be at the beach to do it, and the beach is like summer on steroids, so...). It's a melange of things I've read recently or not so recently, but they all come with a stamp of approval. So sit back, turn the A/C up as high as it will go, and grumble about kids getting off your lawn as you hunker down in the basement with one of these classics.

The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy

This book hits all the right notes for summer haters. First off, it's set not only in England (already a place inhospitable to the truly warm) but more specifically on Egdon Heath, a location that brims with ancient doom and gloom. People light so many bonfires in this book, you'll think the sun never comes out, blessedly. Plus Thomas Hardy has the perpetual feel of a crotchety old man, even though he wasn't even forty when this book was published. Everyone knows that crotchety old people are the mortal enemies of summer, so embrace this tale of doomed love, quixotic educational systems, and reddle (it's a type of natural red dye) and fight off even the cheeriest of summer days.

The Driver's Seat, by Muriel Spark

Nothing says summer like vacation to your favorite spots. For we ugly Americans, Europe has a special lure during the summer months, when we fancifully imagine we can dodge the awful heat and pick up some culture along the way. Lise, the protagonist of Muriel Spark's acidly funny dark comedy The Driver's Seat, opts for a different sort of tourism, one less conducive to the desires of the Italian Tourism Board (for starters), as well as the basic dictates of good taste. Lise goes shopping and generally dallies around as she waits for an expected companion, and the book rushes toward its disturbing climax, which will instill in you a firm desire to lock yourself in your room and let your passport expire.

Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset

Summer is a time for light reads, for mindless page turners, and nothing says breezy reading like a 900 page trilogy about Medieval Norway! Undset's patient (some might say glacial) descriptions of the richness of medieval life are the perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of summertime, and as a bonus the books contain one of the saddest parting scenes in all of literature. Choke back some tears so you don't blotch the sunscreen you aren't wearing and blanket up as you read through a tale as frostily refreshing as a slow slog through a Scandinavian blizzard.

Death of a Naturalist, by Seamus Heaney

Who doesn't have fond memories of visiting the family farm, making hay with Uncle Verner and milking the cows at four in the morning? Hopefully you, because that sounds like a terrible fate, and no amount of rah rah local foodie propaganda can outweigh the disheartening spectacle of stepping in every cow patty on the farm (Uncle Verner probably arranged them like that on purpose, the jerk). For those with mixed feelings about farm life, Seamus Heaney's first poetry collection will give voice to your ambiguity. Heaney's often touted as a poet close to the land, but he displays a real uncertainty in Death of a Naturalist about the supposedly idyllic countryside of Northern Ireland in which he grew up, and the legacies foisted upon him by his farming predecessors. Best enjoyed with the most artificial food you can find.

The Present Age, by Soren Kierkegaard

Ultimately summer is about forgetting your troubles, kicking back with a tasteless lager, and giving in to the relaxation all around you. This is a large part of why summer sucks. Swim against the tide by struggling against the inanity of your fellow humans, courtesy of that gloomy Dane Kierkegaard. This essay loses marks for not being as punishingly labyrinthine as most of his other works, nor quite as melancholy (both musts to set the anti-summer mood), but I'm picking this because of its relentless insistence on the crumbling of society, and what to do to stop it (go into hiding and lob truth bombs at people). This should give you the right supply of bile to stay angry at your neighbors as they shoot off fireworks at midnight a full three weeks after the Fourth of July. Plus it features an extended metaphor about ice skating, so it will fill you with hope that winter might, despite all evidence to the contrary, arrive one day soon and spare us the continued vagaries of summer.
 

Three or Four Reasons I'm Glad I'm Converting to Catholicism

In just under two weeks, after sundown on Easter Saturday at this year's Easter Vigil, my wife and I will be received into the Catholic Church, and our children will be implicitly received as well. This still feels like a strange decision, and will likely blindside some of you reading this post (though we've told those closest to us, this counts as the first public announcement of the fact). I have approximately zero interest in laying out our reasons for converting. First of all, they are complex and would take a great deal of time to explain. Second, there are so many rampant misconceptions about what Catholicism does and does not teach, that discussing thorny doctrinal issues seems counterproductive in this context. Third, I want to do my best to avoid public criticism of the strains of Protestantism that have been my home for so long, and to which I still owe so much. Last, and most frankly, the decision is so personal, in many ways, that I just don't really feel like sharing it here on my blog.

What I offer instead, then, is a list of reasons that I am glad to be joining this strange, sprawling, holy mess called the Roman Catholic Church. These should not be considered motivating factors, but added blessings on top.

1. The Communion of the Saints

One of the biggest misunderstandings Protestants have of Catholicism is the matter of "praying to" the saints. The practice would more accurately be called "praying through" the saints, as every prayer said in this way is in fact a request for intercession, an asking of the saint to pray with us before God. Viewed in this light, the practice is in fact a marvelous one, a way to actually practice the belief in the communion of saints, joined not just across geography but across time. Just as I grow closer to my friends when I ask them to pray for me, so too do my petitions draw me closer to those who already taste of glory.

There's another aspect of this as well. Much more than Protestantism, which tends to demand that Christian practice look roughly the same for everyone (if only at the level of intensity), there's a wonderful variety that comes from the Catholic insistence that anyone in good standing counts as part of the church. That guy who looks like a burned out Super Mario sitting in front of me barely moving his lips during the hymn? Yep, still a Catholic. Some excel more than others (hence the saints), but all participate, no matter how poorly.

2. Science, but not Scientism

I really appreciate the Catholic Church's approach to science and religion, which is one of integration, not antagonism. For those of us Christians who believe in, say, evolution and climate change (to take only the two most contentious scientific matters in the country at present), it's refreshing to be in a church that explicitly endorses the knowledge and benefits conferred on us by scientific research. [I want to note here, for the record, that as misguided as I find Christians who deny evolution, especially those who cling to young earth creationism, I also have a lot of sympathy for them. Adopting a position on any issue is always complex, and I definitely don't think Christians who deny these things are, say, stupid, just probably considering a different set of contexts that gives them certain blindspots. I am decidedly less charitable to those who deny climate change.] Though certain sectors of (in particular) "evangelical" Protestantism are grappling with these issues in honest ways, as a whole Catholicism is far ahead of these churches in this regard.

On the flip side, the Catholic Church is also one of the most vocal proponents of limiting the conclusions we draw from science. In an age where many think that to be able to do something is the same as to be justified in doing something, it's important to stand firm against the more destructive impulses of science. Especially as Silicon Valley talking heads rush to embrace improper uses of technology, such as transhumanism, it's important to accept science while still advocating for ethical conduct. Along with this, it's important to remain critical of the lack of nuance some proponents of science adopt, to guard against what William Blake called "single vision, and Newton's sleep". Here I speak as much as a defender of the humanities as as a Christian.

3. Criticizing the Machine of Modernity.

Here's where I get a bit weird, so forgive me (my wife is already rolling her eyes). It would take me too long to elaborate here what exactly my social and political views are, in large part because I take my cues from those outside the traditional limits of contemporary discourse. Long story short, I am deeply distrustful of "modernity", where that term represents an unmitigated belief in the progress of humankind (especially through technology). At the same time, I have no patience for nostalgia or a desire to return to the past (which is both not possible and, most likely, not desirable). To sum it up: every age is terrible, and every age is wonderful.

The challenge comes from navigating our age's challenges, using the best facets of the past and tradition in new ways. For all the hoary stereotypes to the contrary, Catholicism has shown in the past century to be remarkably adept at this, maintaining its core of beliefs while generously engaging the viewpoints of a pluralist society. Several of the most important interpreters of modernity in the 20th Century have been Catholic, including three I hold in especially high regard, Marshall McLuhan, Rene Girard, and Charles Taylor. These scholars (and many others) represent an attempt to elucidate where we stand and where we might go from here.

In resisting the corrosive effects of late capitalism (yeah, I said it), Catholicism has at least some of the correctives necessary, especially a strong emphasis on communal effort. Catholic-driven political movements like distributism and Dorothy Day's worker movement point out alternatives to the dead end social imaginary of the (completely, unrestrainedly) free market.

4. The Arts

Let me say from the start that many of my favorite writers and artists have been strong, committed Protestants [I'm using this specific phrasing to avoid setting up a false "Protestant bad, Catholic good" dichotomy. It should go without saying that many of my favorites are also committed Jews, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, etc]. To take but two contemporary examples, two of my favorite writers of the past 50 years, Marilynne Robinson and Frederick Buechner, are both Protestants of the liberal American reformed tradition. 

And yet. I still feel the strong pull of a tradition that includes writers like Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Muriel Spark, and Evelyn Waugh. There's something that animates fiction written by Catholics, even questionable or lapsed Catholics (like Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo) that just feels special. For all their similarities, Catholicism and Protestantism do have pretty different views of the world, and those differences cannot help but come across in the art they create. To paint in a broad brush, there's more room for the unexpected in Catholic aesthetics, for the moments that only address faith in a sideways or attenuated fashion. That's important to me as someone slowly tinkering away at an unabashedly obscene satirical novel. 

The same goes for music, visual art, and (perhaps most especially) film. As someone who is especially prone to aestheticism, I have actually been on my guard to avoid romanticizing the artistic aspects of Catholicism that appeal to me (it helps that our parish church, which we attend, has very plain architecture, and music that emphasizes the worst aspects of 70's and 80's "praise hymns". Helps keep me in check). Nevertheless, it would be useless to deny the appeal of this facet of Catholicism. That's as it should be, I think, since we humans worship with our whole being, sensibilities included.

So these are some reasons I feel at home where I am. Far from the whole story, but it's what I'm willing to share for now. As I hope I have emphasized above, this change, while big, does not mean that I have turned into a basher of Protestants. Whatever problems I see in the Protestant project, it has been my home for a very long time, and I can never forget the many blessings it has brought me. And believe me, I enter the Catholic Church severely aware of its problems and limitations. But, in spite of it all, I come. I'm confident that this is as it should be.
 

The Worst Pop Songs of 2015

It's the most wonderful time of the year: the end, where culture critics spend every waking moment trying to fine tune lists of their favorite stuff from the past year. My own top 10 film list will be out later this week, but I wanted to make time to hand craft another favorite list. For the second year in a row, I am proud to present the worst pop songs of the year. I spent far too much time this year listening to top 40 radio, just so I could make this for you. A few self-imposed guidelines:

1. Only 2015 songs eligible. When in doubt, I go with the date listed by Google. (Congratulations, George Ezra! Despite your song "Budapest" boring a hole in my head - and I do mean boring - for much of this year, it has been spared the axe thanks to a technicality of dates).
2. Only mainstream songs that received top 40 radio play. This is both ideological (I don't want to beat up on the thousands of shitty but powerless bands that slopped something up on Bandcamp this year) and practical (for the sake of my sanity). It also means that, aside from the inevitable bland crossover hits, you won't find much rap, country, or "hard rock" on the list. It is what it is.
3. Only one song per artist.

Before I get to the main countdown, a few category awards for songs that couldn't quite make the final cut.

Worst Collaboration (Cross Generational Category)

Iggy Azalea and Britney Spears - Pretty Girls

What happens when the world's most irritating rapper teams up with a washed up teen idol? Apparently the answer to this question is: a half-assed, atonal tribute to popular girls that sounds like the bastard offspring of an NES game soundtrack and a Gregorian chant CD. It also features the lines "Is it true that these men are from Mars?/Is that why they be acting bizarre?", presented without comment. If there's one glimmer  of hope amidst the trash wasteland of 2015 pop music, it's that the listening public knew enough to take a hard pass on this song, which quickly faded from the rotation of my local station and vanished from the cultural conversation, leaving only traces of what might have been.

Worst Collaboration (Spitting on the Grave of a Legend Category)

Charlie Puth ft. Meghan Trainor - Marvin Gaye

 

All it took was seven words to ruin my life forever: "Let's Marvin Gaye and get it on". This is a triple whammy lyric. Not only does it verb a noun - a proper noun! - and coin a new, terrible euphemism for sex, it also drags poor Marvin Gaye through the mud. By all accounts the man had a troubled life, even by celebrity standards, and a tragic death, and now he has to suffer the indignity of becoming fodder for the gentle-spanking sex life of some 18 year old babyface? Worse than that, it's likely that for this upcoming generation the name Marvin Gaye will only make sense in the context of sweaty high school dances spent trying to grope their significant other to some terrible mewing duet. There was a time of innocence, before Charlie Puth's "Marvin Gaye", but that time is no more.

To be fair, there's MUCH more to hate about this song than just the opening line. Not content to sully Gaye's name, the piece also apes his style - sort of. This is dollar store Motown of the sort that Trainor - to whom I regretfully gave a pass in last year's edition of this list - trades in constantly. Here, though, we not only have to suffer through her milquetoast voice, we get the added pleasure of Puth's Boy Scouty crooning.

Key Lines: Aside from the opening assault, the song also features gems like "It's Kama Sutra Show and Tell" and "I'm like a stray without a home/I'm like a dog without a bone". Which, WINK.

Worst Euphemism for Sex (Non Marvin Gaye Desecrating Category)

DNCE - Cake by the Ocean

 2015 marked the glorious return of a pop persona absolutely no one wanted back, Joe Jonas. WIth his new outfit DNCE (fill in that first vowel yourself - I'm going with "U") Jonas managed to, well, annoy the hell out of me, for starters, and also introduce a neologism that hopefully no one adopts: "Cake by the Ocean", apparently a malapropism of "Sex on the Beach", but one ripe with disgusting possibilities.

Home of the most confection-based lyrics this side of "I Want Candy", "Cake by the Ocean" forces its metaphor at every turn. Who could forget Jonas' plaintive cry when he pleads "I'm going blind from this sweet sweet craving"? Who could fail to be moved internally (likely in the bowel region) by his description of his lover as he finds her "Licking frosting from her own hand". The true stroke of genius, though, is DNCE's decision to end the song with Jonas literally just listing out types of cake, as reality bends back on itself and parody becomes impossible: "Red velvet, vanilla, chocolate in my life/Funfetti, I'm ready, I need it every night". Poetry in motion, my friends. (Special bonus for the song including a truly obscure culture reference in the line "I'll be Didd and you be Naomi". I'm ashamed to say I had no idea what this meant; thankfully Genius was there to inform me that "Naomi Campbell and P Diddy dated briefly in 2002". Who says kids these days have no sense of history?

The Top 5(+) Worst Songs of the Year

5. X Ambassadors - Renegades

Can we all agree that the worst trend in pop music of the last 5 years has been the ascendancy of the sensitive, clapping male hipster band? With a sound like the reject pile of open mic night at the local brewpub, and the vocal prowess of a weakly brewed batch of tea, these bands get by on their "searching" lyrics and a patina of grungy DIY style.

After the repeated assaults on our senses by bands like The Lumineers and Mumford & SonsX Ambassadors has apparently been sent to finish the job. They have all the hallmarks of a crappy SCMHB, including lyrics that aren't really lyrics ("Hey hey hey, hey hey hey" - acceptable if and only if you are a Fat Albert tribute act), lots of clapping, and an attitude of vague discontent with consumer society.

Here that coalesces into a tribute to "renegades", those crusty outsiders who protest society so much that they enact radical social change by growing beards, making their own kombucha, and writing songs that Raffi would denounce as a bit too simplistic. The best thing about this song is that the verses are only four lines long, just enough time to engage in insubstantial dreck like "Long live the pioneers/Rebels and mutineers/Go forth and have no fear/Come close and lend an ear". No, seriously, that's verse 2 of this song, not something I picked up out of a Treasure Island random phrase generator. 

The icing on the cake, though, the line that absolutely sealed this song's presence on my list, is this doozy, which happens to be verse 3: "All hail the underdogs/All hail the new kids/All hail the outlaws/The Spielbergs and Kubricks". Because nothing says outlaw more than one of the most respected directors to ever work inside the Hollywood system, one often derided (incorrectly) for his slickness and lack of depth. Kubrick I kind of get (but even he's not exactly John Cassavetes) but picking Spielberg for an example of a renegade is like saying Michael Jordan is your favorite baseball player. It's not technically a category error, but it might as well be.

4. Halsey - New Americana

For a good chunk of the year, all the songs on my main list were by male artists. While this didn't bother me in and of itself - I take much more satisfaction out of bashing my own gender than I do any other - I was a bit worried that some MRA rando would stumble on this list and start harassing me as a self-hating man. So I'm glad I discovered this truly terrible song, one that transcends gender to reach a state of universal crapitude.

The last few years have seen a rash of thinkpieces in newspapers and magazines wondering just what is wrong with those millenials, anyway? Imagine if all the specious arguments from those pieces gained sentience and decided to become a song - that's Halsey's somnambulent "New Americana". Sporting a sound that can only be described as "sub-Lorde-esque", Halsey monotones her way through this train wreck of lazy references and smug self-satisfaction.

Given how few ideas the song actually puts forward, it's kind of impressive how much banality it achieves. The chorus is a perfect example of the Mad Libs style of cultural reference that stands in for any actual substance in discussing America's rising generations: "We are the New Americana/High on legal marijuana/Raised on Biggie and Nirvana/We are the New Americana". Nod to a contemporary news event that "proves" how "superior" the new generation is to those that have come before? Check. Reference to two of the most obvious, least interesting cultural influences on said current generation? Check.

If "New Americana" is an opening salvo in the coming inter-generational wars, then I'm turning traitor and signing up for team old.

3. Imagine Dragons - I Bet My Life

I have a long running joke with myself about how terrible Imagine Dragons is. Their usual sound reminds me of what would happen if you shoved an acapella group into the transporter from Cronenberg's The Fly

Artist's rendering of the aural characteristics of Imagine Dragons.

Artist's rendering of the aural characteristics of Imagine Dragons.

Still, what's genuinely impressive about their newest hit song, "I Bet My Life", is how different it is from the other works in their ouvre. It isn't many bands that could change gears so dramatically, from cyborg light metal to SCMHB, and still have the ensuing result be just as dull as their other work. This takes dedication, folks.

At the (shriveled, barely murmuring) heart of the song lies a dilemma. The singer spends most of his time talking about how he has let everyone down but how he had to escape home, but then pivots in the chorus to saying "So I, I bet my life/I bet my life, I bet my life on you". What's troubling here is not so much the excessive, simplistic repetition (that's to be expected), but the word "so" itself. Not to try to analyze Imagine Dragons by the laws of logic (puny restraints they long ago left behind), but "so" implies some sort of logical connection between what comes before and what follows. I think what they really want to say is "But". Even by the end of the song the singer still seems defiant ("Don't tell me that I'm wrong") but in need of affirmation. No one tell Imagine Dragons that this isn't how life works - I would not want to dry up the creative spring that gushes forth with gems like "I've told a million lies, but/Now I tell a single truth/There's you in everything I do". 

2. Omi - Cheerleader (Felix Jaehn Remix)

By sheer accident, both this year and last the number 2 slot on my list has been occupied by a song that has both reggae pretensions and an odious sense of gender politics. [Special note: I slotted in Nick Jonas' abominable "Jealous" to tie with "Cheerleader" in this spot, only to discover that it was in fact a late 2014 release. You've escaped this time, Nick Jonas, but I have my eye on you]. In defense of Omi's "Cheerleader", it does not begin to approach the levels of badness of last year's "Rude". The sort of casual objectification of women that takes place in "Cheerleader" seems to spring from Omi's "impish boyishness"; that is to say, he appears stuck in 9th grade. This is a man, after all, who sings the lines "Cause I'm the wizard of love/And I got the magic wand". HUGE WINK.

The most offensive thing about "Cheerleader" is its infectiousness, in both senses of the word. Unlike, say, the auteurs behind "Rude", Omi and his remixer at least understand how to thread together an earworm melody, but it's one that will work itself inside of you and then explode, ruining every inch of your innards with its awful bounce. This is the sort of tune that will haunt you for years, working itself out in night terrors and daytime flashbacks. I suspect it's like the monster from It Follows, and will chase you until you either kill it, or spread the disease on to someone else.

1. *TIE* Fall Out Boy - Centuries and Fall Out Boy - Uma Thurman

At this point, if you carefully read the guidelines above, you should be scratching your head. Didn't he say only one song per artist? Yes, that's true my friends, but I have a reason for my tie at the top. The philosopher Leibniz proposed something called the Principle of Identity of Indiscernibles, which states that if two objects have all features in common and those cannot be distinguished from each other, then it can be assumed that they are the same. I propose a corollary: if two songs by the same artist have the exact same level of crappiness, can we really separate them in our minds?

I think that, technically speaking, I was in the target audience when Fall Out Boy became a thing back in the early 2000s. Thankfully I had my head buried in the sand of classical music at that point, and never really explored their vast catalog. Therefore, I'm not qualified to weigh in on how much these new songs betray the spirit/sell out the sound of the first iteration, etc.

What I am qualified to weigh in on is how utterly terrible both of these songs are. And whoo boy, are they bad. Let's start with "Centuries", which already seems fated to become a constant anthem on sports broadcasts for the next 10+ years (in totally unrelated news, I'm putting a ten year moratorium on my watching of sports broadcasts). On the surface it claims to be about going down in history, but I suspect it's actually about using language in such a way that it becomes meaningless. Take these lines: "Some legends are told/Some turn to dust or to gold". What, exactly, does this mean? How does a legend turn to dust?

Here are some other lines from the song, presented without comment (because, really, none needed). " Mummified my teenage dreams/No, there's nothing wrong with me/The kids are all wrong, the story's all off/Heavy metal broke my heart". Ok wait, I know I said "presented without comment", but I just wanted to note, for the record, what a shame it was that heavy metal didn't also break Pete Wentz's vocal chords. And again: "Cause I am the opposite of amnesia". But you both spring from the same source: a heavy blow to the head.

  Meanwhile, "Uma Thurman" goes its own way to the darkness, the blackness, forever, adopting a terrible faux surf rock sound to pay homage to Quentin Tarantino, his leading lady, and utter nonsense. It feels fitting to me that the final ending point of QT's rotten corpus lies not in the dozens of 90's direct to video Pulp Fiction knock offs, but in an even more embarrassing place, this bland pastiche drenched in flop sweat.

Here Fall Out Boy moves from poking holes in the logical construction of language to leaping into the stratosphere of chaos, formless and void. Take the four lines that masquerade as Verse 2: "The blood, the blood, the blood of the lamb/Is worth two lions but here I am/And I slept in last night's clothes and tomorrow's dreams/But they're not quite what they seem". I defy you to make sense of these lines. They're like the Putnam problems of contemporary pop music.

At least those lines do not seem to be packed with explicit reference to QT's collaborations with Uma Thurman. Much of the rest of the song plays like an extended in joke, with nods aplenty to Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill films. It's the sort of smirking, pandering garbage move that allows Fall Out Boy to signal their hipness, while actually condemning them to irrelevance. 

What the song shares in common with "Centuries" is its commitment to praising the singer's miraculous powers. Here he sings "I can move mountains/I can work a miracle, Work a miracle". And indeed, in one sense he's right. "Uma Thurman" and "Centuries", taken together, represent a transcendent badness, a sort of anti-miracle. This is Buckner boot bad. Butt fumble bad. Dan Brown bad. With talent as small as a mustard seed, Fall Out Boy has moved the mountains of contemporary pop music into the sea of their own sinkholing sound. May we all drown in the delicate, delicious seafoam that arises from the splash.

Stockholder's Quarterly Report

I thought it would be nice, for those of you who read and support my work (thanks, all two of you!) to write a little reflection on what has been a busy semester - though you wouldn't know if from the lack of posts on here. Sorry!

My main pursuits have remained academic, of course. This semester marked the halfway point of the coursework section of my PhD, meaning that I am now 1/4 of the way done with my program. Assuming I finish on time, of course, which always happens in humanities PhD programs. Always.

I had a fun but busy semester, which included my first work as a TA, learning Danish, and writing a master's paper, on top of work for three classes (not to mention life, which includes three young children -- one an infant -- plus all sorts of other goodies). All that work meant I wasn't able to give quite as much to each task as I would have liked, but things turned out alright in the end. Here's a brief summary of the four papers I wrote this semester, each of which I liked in its own way.

For my Master's Paper I had to take a previously written seminar paper and expand it from 20 to 30 pages. I took the paper I wrote for my class on Joyce's Ulysses -- about reading that novel through the lens of the Old Testament, rather than Homer's Odyssey -- and added in a theoretical framework based on the ideas of the great French critic Rene Girard. It would have been better with more polish, but it turned out alright.

For my Book History class I wrote about this odd series of books, the Childhood of Famous Americans (a stack of which I just happened to have sitting in my house from my own childhood). I tried to read them alongside the Progressive Education movement of the Early 20th Century. It was an odd, stretching experience, but I was mildly pleased with the end result.

For my class on the Literature of World War I I wrote a paper examining the idea of aristocratic comedy of old age in certain WWI-adjacent texts. I looked primarily at Joseph Roth's monumental novel The Radetzky March, but also Jean Cocteau's novella Thomas the Impostor, Robert Graves' memoir Good-bye to All That, and the Soviet comedy film Lieutenant Kije. I had a lot of fun writing this, and I thought it turned out pretty well.

Probably my favorite paper, though, came in my American Film Genres class. I looked at two films that seem pretty unconnected on the surface: Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Raoul Walsh's gangster film White Heat. I tried to argue that they represent different stages in thinking about the problems of technology, with Jesse James representing the fear that technology will inhibit freedom of movement, while White Heat moves on to consider the problems of technology that constantly monitors movement. It was a blast to write, and not half bad.

In the midst of all this academic work I managed to crank out a few other things as well. My work as Film Critic for the Columbia Daily Tribune continued apace, in what turned out to be another great year for film. My top ten list will be up just before New Year's; if I have the time, I'll do a supplement here to fill in some gaps (performers and such) that my limited word count for the paper necessitates.

I also had a big first for me this semester, actually a double first. I had my first real, legitimate book review published, and that occasion also marked my first print appearance in the pages of Books & Culture, a magazine I greatly admire. The review's been out since November in print, but due to the nature of the magazine, it has yet to go up online. It should be up in the next few weeks, and I will make sure to link to it. On top of that, I wrote an online only piece for the Movies section of Christianity Today in which I wrote some reflections on laughing at characters in documentaries. 

So that's a wrap for my fall, from a writing perspective at least. But there are some exciting coming projects that I want to tease a bit. First off, I'll be doing a book review for a really cool publication of a book by someone I really admire, so we'll see how that goes. It won't be out until the Summer, so hold your breath until then. Or don't. Probably don't.

Most exciting at the moment, though, is a duo of articles I will have coming out in January at an online only publication that I have loved for many years. I can't say more than that at the moment, but I'm excited by these pieces, and the prospect of writing more for this particular publication. 

Though I make no promises, I'm also hoping to put up a few pieces here in the next few weeks, things I don't think I can sell to anyone but want to write, regardless. On top of my film piece, look for the following this holiday season: my second annual list of the worst pop songs of the year (definitely happening); a review of a new album by a friend of mine (that will NOT be making an appearance on the worst pop songs list! (almost definitely happening); and a list of my 10 favorite symphonies (happening, assuming I can finally narrow that sucker down).

God Bless you all in this season, whatever you happen to be celebrating. Thanks for reading. As an early Christmas gift (or a very late Chanukah one), here's some culture I've consumed this fall that I've loved:

Books:

Joseph Roth - The Radetzky March. One of the great novels of the 20th century, I now firmly believe. Hilarious, heartbreaking, wistful, wry; all in equal measure. Simply stunning.

Martin Amis - The Information. Just finished this, my second novel by the acerbic Englishman. It's rip roaringly good: biting, laugh out loud funny (in a literal, not metaphoric way), and utterly insightful into the life of writers.

Muriel Spark - Memento Mori, Territorial Rights, The Bachelors, Girls of Slender Means. Spark is quickly becoming an obsession of mine, and each of these shows why. She has the wit of Wodehouse and the depth of Graham Greene. Of the four, Memento Mori is the best, an absolutely daft romp through old age and conceptions of death. But Girls of Slender Means is not far behind. So, so good. 

Films:

I won't pick any 2015 films here (you can just wait for the list like everyone else), but here are a few older films I discovered.

Leo McCarey - The Awful Truth, Make Way for Tomorrow. Somehow McCarey has been lost a bit in film history, overshadowed by other studio directors like Hawks and Capra, but he's an absolute master. Take these two films, very different from each other. The Awful Truth is a corker of a screwball comedy, with Cary Grant and Irene Dunn in top form. Make Way for Tomorrow, meanwhile, might be one of the saddest films ever made, a mortgage melodrama that clearly served as inspiration for Ozu's more heralded Tokyo Story (which you should also see, if you haven't). I always attributed the genius of one of my favorite films, Duck Soup, primarily to the Marx Brother's manic energy, but I've clearly been giving short shrift to McCarey, who directed it.

Preston Sturges - The Palm Beach Story. Speaking of screwballs, this has to be one of the best, most bizarre examples of that genre ever put on film. Crackling with energy, bursting at the seams with invention, it's Sturges on top of his game.

Bruce Robinson - How to Get Ahead in Advertising. After seeing this, I commented that it was the most me film ever. Two months on, I stand by that comment. Here's a film - part satire of modern business, part body horror - that manages to condense most of my philosophical preoccupations into one uproarious film. A must see.

Once more to you: peace! Stay safe, and do good work.

On Fort Apache, The Iliad, and Complexity in Art

First off, this is not a post about trigger warnings, or free speech, or any other potentially thorny hot button issue. This is a post about how we see, and our tendency to close off experience too quickly.

Among the many problems that arise from a mode of thinking focused on quick moral categorization rather than slow, reflective judgement, one of the most fundamental undermines the whole exercise from the get go: the arrogance of assuming that we can swiftly and thoroughly understand what a work of art is "about". Does it conform to our rigid understanding of what art should do and what social change it should enact - or at least gesture towards? In the increasingly hectic world of online evaluation, the easiest way to know what culture to consume is to examine what boxes it checks. Amy Schumer sketches? Anti-patriarchy, so good (except when she's maybe a little racist, in which case, bad). 

The list goes on and on. And maybe, for something short and uncomplex like a TV sketch, this rubric works acceptably. But what can we make of big, sprawling works, novels or films that contain Whitmanian multitudes? Does gathering a list of the ways in which Moby Dick is problematic tell us anything about whether it's worth reading? I would suggest that a move away from making things problematic and toward opening up problematics (matrices of evaluation) would do a lot to further our understanding of works of art.

I'm in a film class at the moment on American genre films, which allows me to make a start on filling in holes in my least viewed genre: the Western. This week's film was John Ford's Fort Apache; not among his best known films, but a striking one in its own right. Throughout the film I could not help but wonder what modern online trendsetters and language policers would make of this deeply conflicted film. On the one hand, it reenacts the archetypal Western plot of cavalry versus Native Americans, in ways which definitely conform to its period (immediately after the Second World War). On the other, it presents a subtle but damning critique of the Army's treatment of Native American tribes, essentially laying full responsibility at the feet of the government. Geronimo, that specter haunting so many Westerns, appears here as a minor character just getting his start; that he witnesses the betrayal of his tribe by the Army clearly connects to his status as full blown outlaw by film's end.

Then there's the film's coda, which makes the already dusty morality of the film even more complex. John Wayne's York, who has taken over command of the fort after the death of Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda), gives a rousing speech to some newspapermen about the courage of the men of the cavalry, their willingness to sacrifice and keep marching. Then the troops march out, flags waving, to a stirring anthem.  On the surface this ending contradicts what Ford has laid out before, and it's easy to read the ending as Ford losing courage and backing down in favor of mindless patriotism. In other words, problematic.

But watch the ending a little closer. Witness Wayne's extreme discomfort as he tells the men how brave and wise Colonel Thursday was. For those willing to accept dialectic complexity, another reading of the ending emerges. York, caught between his private admiration of the Apache and his need to fulfill his duty, chooses to lie about what has gone before. To shatter the illusion would be too much for most men to bear, so York absorbs the burden of his own hypocrisy instead. On this reading, the ending has a striking resemblance to the famous ending of Heart of Darkness, where Marlowe lies to Kurtz's fiance in order to preserve her vision of Kurtz as a noble man. It's a bitter choice.

Or take The Iliad (which we've been reading in the class for which I TA). It's the most famous paean to violence ever, with death scenes that would make Eli Roth say "Whoa, Homer, take a step back and chill". It's full of easily condemned parts -- not just violence, but misogyny and other troubling aspects. What's it still doing in the canon, anyway?

This is the sort of interpretation that emerges when we assume that depiction equals endorsement. To be fair, it's very easy to assume that Homer endorses the violence of the epic, strewn as it is over nearly every page, in lovingly crafted detail. Dig a little deeper, though, and the poet clearly betrays a troubled attitude toward the ravages of war. In Book 6, for instance, he includes this chilling encounter between Hector and his infant son:

In the same breath, shining Hector reached down
for his son -- but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse's full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror --
so it struck his eyes.


In one brief moment, Homer radically subverts the text of his own poem. War is not a glorious march for glory: it is the machine that transforms men into monsters. If we have eyes to see, it becomes clear that Homer struggles throughout The Iliad with the ravages of war and what it means for soldiers and their families, and indeed all of society. Yes, if you are faint of heart it can be difficult to wade through all the violence, but without it Homer could not build to the most heartbreaking ending in all of literature, the meeting between Achilles and Priam. And who, having read that, would wish it unread?

When we are willing to trust works of art, to move beyond simplistic division into good and bad, we can encounter a rich dialectic ground where ideas struggle with each other and open up new interpretive possibilities. When we approach works of art not in a spirit of fear or of asserting ourselves against them, and instead let ourselves be borne along by the currents of their complex inner logic, we end up changed by the encounter.

Welcome to My Site, or Why I Am Not a Controversialist

"Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, 'In this world, Elwood, you must be' - she always called me Elwood - 'In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.' Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me." -Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart), Harvey

Since this post marks the first bit of actual writing on my new writer's site, I wanted to take the opportunity to set forth one of the important aspects of my personality that shapes the way I think and write about culture. Namely: I am not a controversialist.

In the rough and tumble world of Internet culture writing, this predisposition puts me at somewhat of a disadvantage. Controversy sells, almost as well as sex, and rage remains the primary fuel of the clickbait economy. I could probably double my readership overnight, from 4 to 8 people, by tackling the issues of the day with a loud voice and a snarky style. To do that, however, I'd have to fight against every impulse that guides me as a critic. 

Not that I shy away from having strong, offbeat opinions. I will never miss an opportunity to blast the films of Quentin Tarantino, or praise mega-flop Speed Racer, if given the chance. But I'm not the sort of person to go out stirring up trouble, picking fights about films or books or politics. While I don't hold myself up as some sort of superior being for this trait, and I think controversialists have their place in society, I want to lay out a few reasons I shy away from heated debate, especially on the Internet.

I Just Don't Have the Personality For It

Some people love debate. It energizes them and clarifies their thinking process. They like nothing more than shooting out little sallies of opinion and having them batted back. That's not the way I work. I think much better internally, when I have a chance to lay things out piece by piece. If debaters are like blacksmiths, honing their points through repeated blows, I'm more like an architect, assembling daring structures through careful planning.

Additionally, I am mortally afraid of offending people (there's a history there - more later). In a personal encounter, it is easy to regulate and make sure that your conversation partner follows your train of thought without taking what you say personally, but online this becomes a tricky proposition. I can be a very sarcastic person, but I have resolved to refrain from using that sarcasm as a weapon - for me, this means staying away from situations where I will be provoked to use my words to score cheap points.

Forget the Right Answers - People Don't Even Have the Right Questions

This is where I disabuse you of the notion that I view myself as some sort of moral saint in a parched landscape of evil. A large part of the reason I avoid online controversies is that, well, I (arrogantly) find people to be poorly equipped to talk about issues they way I think they need to be talked about. Largely this comes from my eccentric history of reading, wherein I have consumed all sorts of strange notions about the way society works (see the influences page of this site).  

Essentially I believe that all debates about contemporary issues take for granted larger questions of the functioning (or dysfunctioning) of society under democracy and capitalism. I tend to want to make every question a meta-question, when people really just want a soundbite about why they should hate the other side. I fully realize this makes me at times an insufferable conversation partner; just ask my wife. It's no fun to ask a "simple" question about, say, my views on technology, and have me launch into a diatribe about the printing press. So I tend to keep my mouth shut.

My Personal History Makes Me Wary

I try to live life without too many regrets, but one piece of my past that has always bugged me involves the dissolution of a close friendship over the course of my high school years. One of my dearest friends and I gradually grew apart thanks largely to our penchant for yelling at each other, often via blog posts, about issues we found scintillating. He became a fervent atheist, indebted to Dawkins and his ilk, and I reacted by trying to overcompensate for the perception of Christians as slack jawed yokels. This led to a lot of preening and harsh words on both sides. We eventually reached a truce, but we never regained our original closeness, and I still feel sad about that. 

What I learned out of that experience is that I never want to place winning in front of loving others. I never want to make people pawns in a game of feeling good about myself (at least not in that way - I do this in other ways every day, unfortunately). And so I try to sit off to the side, playing by myself. I'd rather build a snow castle than throw a snowball. So join me, if you will. Grab a shovel. Let's make something beautiful - together.