Thursday, July 22, 2004
Yeah, well, even though I didn’t think Ralph was a particularly good candidate, and (as I’ve said before) didn’t think he would be a remotely plausible President (he’s never held an office, and, as his former associates have repeatedly pointed out, he does not play well with others), I too had my moments of being “excited” by him. Late in the 2000 race, in (where else?) Madison, Wisconsin, Ralph was interviewed by Chris Matthews, who was a Raider back in the day before he became one of the barking dogs of cable news. In that interview, conducted on the University of Wisconsin campus, Ralph said a couple of True Things I’d never heard a presidential candidate say in October: that our drug laws are insane, and that (relatedly) it is a travesty that we have two million of our fellow citizens locked up for small-time offenses which the rich not only can get away with in their callow youth, but can get away with in their callow youth and then fib about when they grow up to run for President. At one point, Matthews asked Ralph about the so-called New Economy, and whether the Internet boom didn’t prove that a less regulated form of capitalism is more productive than those stuffy European forms, where states provide all those costly services and where unions still exist. Ralph squashed that little neolib thought like a bug, pointing out that the success of the Internet was in fact a perfect example of a piece of infrastructure built by the state. Thousands of U Wisconsin students and faculty, of course, ate it up. And watching all this on TV, I had my moments, yes I did, of thinking, “you go, old man, you keep saying those True Things. Stick it to ‘em.”
Then I snapped to, and said to myself, you know, if this old man had said these True Things in a Democratic primary, then not only would he have pushed the field to the left, as Howard Dean (and unexpectedly, given his record, John Edwards) did this year, but we progressives would have been spared the embarrassment of clustering around that nice liberal-centrist Bill Bradley in 1999 as if he were the second coming of RFK.
But we all know why Ralph wouldn’t run in the primary: the whole premise is that the system itself is broken, so there’s no point even attempting to play within it. Well, as every savvy progressive and her brother has already pointed out, it’s a shame the New Right didn’t take that holy attitude toward the GOP, isn’t it. Instead, they worked within it and took it over˝ like good radicals, working from the roots up. (Tom Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? contains a fine account of how the Kansas GOP of Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum became the Kansas GOP of Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts and creationism in just over a decade.)
Very well, so why won’t progressive Naderites do the same thing? Is it because they’re infantile, self-absorbed, clueless, or˝ as one progressive Democrat has suggested˝ college-town yuppies who are insulated from the economic consequences of their actions?
I don’t think so. I think Ralph’s appeal to his supporters works very much the way the underground music scene works˝ even for supporters who’ve never heard, or heard of, Mission of Burma or the White Stripes or the Fiery Furnaces (whose CD Nick gave me the other night, and is playing as I type, even though it’s not good “background” music). One key: look back, over the years, at the fury with which Ralph has attacked associates who’ve “sold out” by going to work for federal agencies. True Naderites love that shit: it’s one of the ways their man marks his territory. And after all, working in the federal government does involve all manner of corruption and compromise. It involves money and power and being implicated in some really nasty horse-trading and foul policy-making. It’s not at all like working for a citizens’ group. And I’m old enough to remember when the Clash were accused of “selling out” by playing a long stand at Bond’s in Times Square in 1981. That’s right, they sold out by playing a big club. As if that made them indistinguishable from REO Speedwagon. But it was important for certain diehard Clash fans to mark their fandom in that way, by insisting that the Clash were the only band that mattered-- and that they would never do things that other bands did, like, um, play at Bond’s. (For the record, the Clash picked as their opening acts a bunch of different local, underexposed bands. And when it turned out that the show was oversold, they agreed to play extra gigs in order to honor all tickets, and wound up playing something like nine or ten shows. Now, of course, that gig is legendary. But nonetheless, at the time, I knew people who’d insisted they’d sold out.)
So when establishment Democrats came along in 2000 and told Naderites to get over themselves, to grow up, to tamp down their petty little passions and get acclimated to the real world of corruption and compromise, it didn’t work. Actually, it had precisely the opposite effect: it confirmed Naderites’ sense that they were in fact messing with the system and sticking it to the man (and I don’t mean to belittle the idea of man-sticking: how many times has this blog wanted to stick it to Lieberman, after all? And it’s not like I’ve forgotten who propelled the guy into national prominence, either.) Imagine some parental figure breaking into your room in 1988 and taking away all your HŞsker DŞ records and then saying, “very well, if you must listen to your music, here˝ I have some nice Huey Lewis and the News albums for you. Now put on that sports jacket and grow up˝ we’re going to the Dukakis rally, and you have to look presentable.” Woo woo, the Dukakis rally. Can you feel the excitement?
The establishment-Democrat response is guaranteed to backfire, then, and anyone with any experience in any “alternative” community can tell you why. What then of what I called the “savvy progressive” response, where people insist on the importance of the Cabinet positions and judicial appointments and regulatory agencies? Why doesn’t that work either?
Because some Nader fans just aren’t working on that level. They don’t care much for the prospect of reducing mercury emissions by ten percent (after the mercury ban gets blocked by the House GOP) or issuing new guidelines for the conditions under which repetitive-stress injury will be covered by Worker’s Comp and the ADA. It’s not about the wonky details˝ it’s about the fact that neither Gore nor Kerry inspires a bit of enthusiasm or excitement, and the reason they don’t inspire any enthusiasm or excitement is that they’ve spent a lifetime working for Incremental Change, Inc. while accepting campaign contributions from the Moderate Mercury Emissions industry. Also, they never say anything about the insanity of our drug laws or the structural role of the state in propping up “free” enterprise, because, don’t you know, utterances like these are associated with the (decadent) intellectual left˝ they don’t poll well with swing voters, and might in fact lose 2.4 percent of the independent vote in suburban St. Louis. Better for a New Democrat to propose school uniforms and a Defense of Marriage Act.
My point is that both establishment Democrats and progressives (myself included) have woefully underestimated the importance of visceral, affective, emotional factors in all this. When people are profoundly disaffected from the party of Clinton/Gore, and think of it (not without reason) as the party of Dick Morris and David Gergen, you can’t snap them to attention by (a) insisting that Huey Lewis is the only music that responsible grownups listen to or (b) trying to scare them by arguing that George Bush will scorch their earth.
Am I saying that people to the left of the Democrats are irrational? Not at all. But I am saying that many of us want more than a New New Democrat white paper to go on˝ we actually want to care about the candidate, we want to believe he’s worth our effort, we want to trust that he won’t take our support and use it to cut a deal with Bill Frist sometime next spring, knowing that we have Nowhere Else To Go.
This really isn’t a trivial matter˝ and I say this as someone who’s underestimated the role of emotion in politics his entire life. These days, I look back at some of the prominent Nader intellectuals’ enthusiasm in late 2000 and I’m mystified˝ they truly believed that they had a mass protest movement on their hands, that they were seeing the groundswell of a decisive break with the plodding corporate Democrats they despised. Seriously, go back and look at some of that stuff today˝ and I think you’ll wonder, as I did, all this hoohah for a guy who pulled 2.7 percent of the vote-- about one-third of Ross PerotÝs 8.4 percent in 1996? (Remember, Perot pulled 8.4 percent long after every sensible person had realized that the Weekly World News had it right all along˝ Perot was actually a member of the same species of creature that crash-landed near Roswell in 1947. Who was still voting for him in 1996? People like Dennis Miller, that’s who. Miller was a piece of work long before 9/11, folks˝ a passionate Perot man from way back in ‘92, and a fierce defender of good old Admiral James Stockdale.) But for some progressives, especially those of us in universities, it seemed exhilarating at the time: look! millions of people agree with us! and our guy is on TV, stickin’ it to Chris Matthews! For those of us who are more used to having hundreds, or maybe dozens, of people agree with us, the idea of pulling three million votes for Nader was intoxicating. Problem was, there were 102 million other voters involved, and that should’ve dampened anyone’s enthusiasm for The Movement. But it didn’t, which suggests to me that in many respects, the enthusiasm for Nader 2000 significantly exceeded its object.
Democrats need to understand this. Even today, in his Perotian decline, Nader continues to pull three to five percent in polls. I know it’s a small number, and it may not affect the outcome this time, but think about that: Bush has turned out to be worse than any Nader voter could have imagined; Nader is not running with the Greens; he’s working with far-right lunatics and lying about it; nearly every prominent progressive intellectual has publicly jumped ship˝ and his support is still at the level it was four years ago. As I said yesterday, I think The Nader Factor is doing exactly the right thing, by trying to channel some of that progressive-left passion into useful venues. I don’t agree that Nader voters have to be “courted”: it’s not like we prolabor progressives have done them some terrible harm and now have to make it up to them. But if the Democrats can’t figure out how to handle Nader progressives’ legitimate desires to care about the guy at the top of the ticket˝ the legitimate desire to desire˝ then we’re going to see something very much like a replay of the debacle of 2000. And even if Kerry wins, can we afford to have three million permanently disaffected progressives, too alienated from the Democrats to care about taking back the party?
Next installment: don’t ask me what it would take for me to leave the Democrats. I left ‘em in 1995, to join the New Party, and now I’m back, because the Supreme Court shot down “fusion” ballots on the grounds that the two-party system, like the Terminator, cannot dismantle itself.
Wednesday, July 21, 2004
Thanks again, Ralph! and all your friends!
From last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education:
Labor Board Rules Against TA Unions
Decision is major blow to organizing efforts at private colleges
By Scott Smallwood
Graduate students at private universities do not have the right to form labor unions, the National Labor Relations Board ruled on Thursday, striking down its own landmark 2000 ruling that had led to a wave of organizing.
The long-awaited decision was split along party lines, with members of the board ruling, 3 to 2, that teaching assistants at Brown University are primarily students and are not covered by federal labor law. The United Automobile Workers had organized graduate students at Brown in 2001 and had successfully petitioned for a union election. Those ballots were impounded when the university appealed to the NLRB, and have remained uncounted ever since.
In 2000 the board, then controlled by Democratic appointees, ruled that graduate students at New York University could unionize, prompting organizing drives across the nation that signed up thousands of graduate students over the last four years. That work is now undone by the board’s ruling.
In the Brown case, the three Republican members appointed by President Bush ruled that the precedent before the NYU ruling was “sound and well reasoned.”
“Graduate-student assistants, including those at Brown, are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university,” the majority wrote. They further found that since the money received by teaching assistants is the same as that received by students on fellowships, it is not “consideration for work” but financial aid.
The two Democratic members dissented, arguing that the majority was “woefully out of touch with contemporary academic reality” and that their decision was based on an outdated view of academe.
Brown’s provost, Robert J. Zimmer, said in a written statement that the board “correctly recognizes that a graduate student’s experience is a mentoring relationship between faculty and students and is not an appropriate matter for collective bargaining.”
Phil Wheeler, a regional director of the United Automobile Workers, called the decision a blatantly political ruling and said it was disappointing that supposedly progressive universities
had appealed the case to an “anti-union Bush board.”
. . .
As word of the decision spread, the American Federation of Teachers was holding its annual convention in Washington. Minutes after learning of the decision, Nat LaCour, the executive vice president, told members: “The ruling is outrageous. This must change.”
A spokeswoman at Columbia University said the institution would not comment on the ruling since it did not directly involve Columbia.
Lori Doyle, a spokeswoman for Penn, said administrators there are “delighted” by the ruling. “We are pleased that the NLRB has recognized what we’ve been saying all along: that graduate students are students, not employees,” she said. After quickly reviewing the decision, lawyers there said they expect to see a ruling soon on their case that would be consistent with the Brown decision.
Union leaders were holding out a sliver of hope, though. While acknowledging that the decision was a “major blow,” Lauren Nauta, the Penn union’s organizing chairwoman, said leaders of her group believe their case is different enough from the one at Brown that the NLRB’s ruling could be different.
Ms. Nauta, a Ph.D. candidate in history, said students at Penn were outraged by the decision and what they see as its political aspect. “Basically this comes down to Bush’s Republican appointees overturning the NYU precedent,” she said. “It’s very unclear what the distinction between graduate students at a public university and a private university would be. We feel that we’re employees, we pay taxes, and we should have the right to bargain collectively.”
All right, now, people familiar with this blog and/or with my work in academe know that I’ve been a passionate supporter of graduate student unions, and that I’ve been a bitter critic of Ralph Nader’s run for President in 2000 (his current run is simply evidence of dementia, and though I’ve promised not to say any more about the man himself on this blog, I will have a few questions for his remaining supporters, the Five Percenters, a bit later on). But is it fair of me to blame Ralph for this mortal wound the NLRB has inflicted on graduate student union drives? Or am I reading history backwards, retroactively applying criteria to the 2000 election that no progressive-left voter could possibly have taken into consideration at the time?
The correct answer is (a), it is fair of me to blame Ralph for this mortal wound inflicted by the NLRB. But that’s not because I went around arguing about the composition of the NLRB four years ago-- it’s because Eric Alterman did. Check out this Nation column from November 2000, and you make the call:
Providence put me on a panel debating the Gore/Nader choice with Cornel West at New York University in late October. Most of the audience was for Nader, and the lineup on stage did nothing to improve those odds.
Before the debate began, its organizers took a few moments to speak on behalf of the university’s graduate students’ struggle for unionization. So did West, who had been handed a flier about it from the floor. And as a man about to lose a debate (and a longtime grad student as well as an occasional NYU adjunct faculty member), I was happy for the interruption. Days later, the National Labor Relations Board set an important precedent by ruling in favor of the students. But here’s what I don’t understand. How can the student union supporters also be Nader supporters? Nonsensical “Tweedledee/Tweedledum” assertions to the contrary, only one party appoints people to the NLRB who approve of graduate student unions, and only one appoints people to the Supreme Court who approve of such NLRB decisions. No Democrat in the White House, no graduate student union; it’s that simple. An honest Nader campaign slogan might have read, “Vote your conscience and lose your union...or your reproductive freedom...your wildlife refuge, etc., etc.”
No Democrat in the White House, no graduate student union; it’s that simple. He really did say it-- the very same week that Bob McChesney, who has since come to his senses, called for Gore to drop out of the race, writing that “Only Nader can defeat Bush. All that progressives stand for-- the Supreme Court, a woman’s right to choose, the environment-- is on the line. The sad truth is that on November 7 a vote for Gore is a vote for Bush.”
Like McChesney, many Naderites have begun to smell the rancid GOP coffee, even though it’s been on the burner for over a decade. Barbara Ehrenreich recently repudiated Nader as well, in her new (and welcome) incarnation as a New York Times op-ed pinch hitter, but, as Digby pointedly argued the other day, picking up on an item from Brad DeLong,
It was clear to many of us in 2000 that the Republican Party had completely run amuck and that George W. Bush was simply a brand name in a suit that the Party was putting forth to hide their essential ugliness from the American people. It was obvious to some of us that this was an unprecedented partisan battle and that this insular, myopic view on the left was going to hurt us very badly. I have little patience for the idea that it took this massive demonstration of GOP power under the Bush administration to convince people that the first, most important order of political business was to check the Republican power grab. It was obvious in 2000 to anyone who was paying attention.
Thanks, Digby, for reminding everyone of the “paying attention” criterion. And thanks also, Brad, for reminding me that Ehrenreich called voting for the Democrat in 2000 a “playful new postmodernist form of politics.” Ha ha! That was a good one, Ms. Ehrenreich. You really got us postmodernists there!
So yes, I know, among the travesties and outrages the Bush administration has visited upon us-- and note that this blog, like most American media, is doing its patriotic duty in not saying anything about the torture and rape of children at Abu Ghraib-- this NLRB ruling is very small beer. But just for future reference: no Democrat in the White House, no graduate student union. It’s that simple.
UPDATE: Oh, all right, I can be more constructive than this. Stop over at The Nader Factor and show ‘em some love. They’re doing the Right Thing, and you should too.
Tuesday, July 20, 2004
Good news and bad news
The good news is that this here blog, begun with such hesitancy and foot-shuffling in early January, has recently received its two-hundred-thousandth visitor. It took us from January 7 to May 9 to reach 100,000, and just under two and a half months to double that. We have no delusions of grandeur around here—we’re no Atrios or Kos or Billmon or Crooked Timber—but we do sometimes speak about ourselves in the first person plural, and that’s already pretty grandiose, we think.
The bad news is that ever since I posted a pair of items on Dinesh D’Souza, I have earned myself my very first cybershadow. But he doesn’t send me hate mail. Instead, he’s filed a nasty “review” of my book, Life As We Know It, with amazon.com, under the heading “a reader from Minneapolis.” The first time he did it, he posted something like “B├ęrub├ę is a puerile hate-monger who denies the existence of political correctness and fails to answer the arguments of Dinesh D’Souza with reason.” I came across this “review” about a month after it was posted, and wrote to amazon.com to ask them whether they had any quality-control mechanisms on board, since the “review” had nothing to do with the book. Happily, amazon.com wrote back in a couple of days to say, sorry ‘bout that, we’ll delete that “review” within 48 hours. A few days later, though, my “reader from Minneapolis” was back (he’s still there, if you want to check), complaining about my aversion to reason and insisting that I’m using my son’s disability to advance my “extreme politics.” (It’s true—Life As We Know It argues for national health care and endorses John Rawls’s “justice as fairness” critique of utilitarianism with a critical caveat about the Rawlsian “original position.” I’m one short step from Stalin! Dude, I’m completely X-Treme!)
I’m not worried about the “review” in itself, now. It’s hardly going to matter to me or to my book. But I’m worried that there are people out there who’ve read my critique of Dinesh D’Souza and have become so enraged that . . . that . . . ooooh, they will write bad things about me on the amazon.com website! That’ll show me!! Really, this is a very odd, very mediated form of political “retribution.” I doubt that it was common in Cicero’s Rome or Machiavelli’s Florence, not that I’d prefer to have those methods applied to me and my family.
And then there’s the swarm of viruses being sent my way lately—one of which breached the Penn State firewall and my own Norton Antivirus program. (I think it’s called “backdoor.") For the past week my laptop has been wheezing through the Internet, reconfiguring my email and producing dozens of popups where there were no popups before. (One morning this past weekend I turned on the laptop and saw popups even before I’d opened a browser. Those of you who’ve seen the last twenty minutes of The Ring will have some idea of what this was like.) I suppose I’m infected with spyware or something, but this is really beyond my technical chops. So, if anyone out there has any suggestions, please, now’s the time. I have no idea whether this trouble is related to the recent emergence of my friend from Minneapolis, but I do know that I’m glad I’m getting myself a new laptop soon.
Back to the good news. We learned this summer that Nick was accepted to a great college, Washington University in St. Louis, whose architecture program sounds just perfect for him. (I haven’t posted much about Nick, partly because some of his friends read this blog. Friends of Nick, stop reading this blog! Yes, that means you. And you, too. Go read a book—haven’t you seen that recent National Endowment for the Arts report about the decline of reading in America, a decline which just happens to be most precipitous among 18-to-25-year-olds? You rotten kids aren’t reading enough fiction. Go read fiction, rotten kids. Go.) The bad news is that the tuition and fees, over four years, come to a dollar amount that is eerily close to the number of visitors this blog has had since January. (Had Nick gone to Penn State, by contrast, he would have been charged the standard child-of-faculty rate, namely, one-quarter of the quite reasonable in-state rate for tuition.) The obvious solution proposed itself—instead of begging for spare change from readers via PayPal, I could just install software that deducted one dollar from the savings accounts of readers visiting the site! But I was told that the technology that would permit websites to make involuntary deductions from readers’ private savings accounts is still months away from successful deployment.
No, I’m making that up. Really. I would never pick your pockets-- and I will never sell out!! (Unless a very good offer comes my way.) But I did briefly consider selling blog ads, after I read this fascinating item by Maureen Ryan in the July 13 Chicago Tribune.
CHICAGO - (KRT) - A year ago, blogger Glenn Reynolds joked to the Tribune that he was making “burger-flipping” wages from the trickle of funds readers donated to his popular Web site, Instapundit.com.
These days, Reynolds can afford to order steak. Since he began accepting advertisements on his site five months ago, Instapundit.com has been bringing in several thousand dollars a month.
It’s starting to look as if bloggers can make a living from their sites, thanks to an advertising boom. Companies who want to reach specific consumers - current-events mavens, conservative PhDs, cell phone fanatics - are hooking up with blogs that can deliver those eyeballs. Some politically oriented blogs are also riding an election-year advertising wave, but industry experts expect the trend to last well beyond November.
Blog ads! Why didn’t I think of this before?!? I get about 1.5 percent of the Uberpundit’s readership, I should be able to pull down 1.5 percent of his income, or a couple dozen dollars a month. . . .
But then I thought, wait a second. Check out this seventh-to-last paragraph, on the fortunes of Nick Denton and Gawker Media:
Some advertisers are also wary of bloggers’ freewheeling writing styles, but Denton has rebuffed potential clients who’ve asked him to reign in his cheeky staff.
Golly! Advertisers might be wary of my cheeky, freewheeling writing style. So much for that little get-rich-quick-and-pay-for-college scheme! But I understand. It makes sense for advertisers to stick with writers in traditional print media, even if neither they nor their editors know the difference between “reign in” and “rein in.”
(Addendum: apparently the Macon, Georgia Telegraph, whose copy of the Tribune essay I’ve linked to above, has seen fit to publish the article under the headline, “Bloggers Earns Extra Income Via Ads.” Which reminds me: rarely is the question asked, is our bloggers earning?)
Again, I invite anyone with advice on spyware and popups and annoying cybershadows to advise away.
Aliens (the sequel)
Thanks to everyone for submitting all those great alien lyrics! At first, I thought of announcing that songwriters with serious aspirations to the long-neglected post of Surrealist Poet Laureate (English Language), such as Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Robyn Hitchcock, Syd Barrett, Captain Beefheart, Bob Dylan, Bj├Ârk, Tori Amos, and of course Edith Sitwell and Britney Spears, should be ineligible for this category on the grounds that they are deliberately trying to mess with our minds, whereas the space aliens I’m concerned with actually think they’re talking human talk and mingling among us undetected. But then I realized that having serious aspirations to the long-neglected post of Surrealist Poet Laureate (English Language) is a classic space-alien characteristic, and who am I to exclude certain extraterrestrial life forms from consideration just because I think they’re consciously messing with us?
Then there’s the other “category” problem, the problem of pop. Most of the lyrics you’ve cited come from artists like the Meat Puppets, Soul Coughing, the Fiery Furnaces, Caroliner, Capt. Beefheart—people who are pretty damn unlikely to be getting any radio airplay in this lifetime, if by “radio airplay” we mean “airplay on a radio station of greater than 25 watts.” Don’t get me wrong—I loved finding out about these bands I didn’t know, I loved being reminded about the Captain and the Meat Puppets, and I went around all weekend singing “Brenda’s Iron Sledge,” which I haven’t heard in about 15 years—but it’s quite another thing to be confronted with space oddities like “I Am I Said” or “Levon” in your car radio on heavy rotation. (As for “MacArthur Park,” Colonel M, well, Jimmy Webb also wrote the sublime “Wichita Lineman,” so if he wanted to eat some shrooms and write “As we followed in the dance/ Between the parted pages and were pressed/ In love’s hot, fevered iron/ Like a striped pair of pants,” I suppose he’s entitled.) I don’t want to invoke any arbitrary or essentially-contested criteria here—I just want to point out that it’s a little easier to get away with lyrics like
Flag of health unfurled
a plague of grit given to the world!
Throwing my six cents out of the wind
A shotgun blast from in my pants
An omen I’ll be a bedpan
when you’re in the serious-alternative-to-the-merely-alternative-alternative section of the record store. How much more difficult to slough off your humanoid prostheses in public, as PZ Myers (rightly) says of Michael Jackson.
So far, my faves are Soul Coughing’s “Uh, Zoom Zip” and Caroliner’s “Rainbows Made of Meat,” but really, the competition is intense, and besides, it’s not a competition. Though if it were a competition, Ken Smith would take the palm for best Meta-Meta-Commentary with “I believe that Jeremy Osner’s strange and beautiful apology a few comments back trumps all the song lyrics. He wrote: ‘Sorry, didn’t realize there was no html permitted. Just strip out the tags with your eyes,’” and Osner himself would pick up Honorable Mention for announcing that “‘Jeremy Osner’s Strange and Beautiful Apology’ is going to be the title of my memoir.” But it’s not a competition. In fact, the more I thought about this, the more I realized how very mixed were my motives in announcing this not-competition.
On one hand, I wanted to do something a little different on the site, in the interest of keeping everyone entertained. On the other hand, as I read all this stuff over the weekend, I realized I wasn’t entertaining anybody; on the contrary, you all were entertaining me. Well, yes, of course, not that there’s nothing wrong with that—except that, as one friend pointed out to me yesterday, I did kick this off by putting “Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man” in people’s heads for a couple of days, and there simply had to be some malice involved there, so maybe “Pop Lyrics By Space Aliens” is my very first passive-aggressive post on this humble blog, masquerading as an invitation to entertainment. Sorry about that, everyone. No, wait, I’m not sorry! Or maybe I am. I’m not sure.
Then to make matters still more complex, there’s my vexed relation to all lyrics, which I didn’t tell you about. On one hand (this would be three hands now, but of course you space aliens know what I’m talking about) I love finding out what the lyrics are. “Alvin Tostig,” huh? Thanks, Carrie—I never could make sense of that line from “Levon,” and whaddya know, I went to a baseball game this weekend at which they played “Levon” between innings for no good reason, and for the first time in my life I could sing along with that half-chorus, full-throated, the way I’ve always wanted to. Everyone in section 204 thanks you. But on the other hand (fourth hand), I’m a drummer—you know, the guy who follows the band around and goes to all their gigs. (Followup joke: what’s the last thing the drummer says before he gets kicked out of the band? “Hey guys, maybe we should try playing some of my songs.") I have never bothered to learn all the lyrics in any of the bands I’ve played in; in Baby Opaque, in 1984, I found out what some of the lyrics were when I typed them up for our DIY EP sleeve, and in Nastybake, in 1998, I heard them for the first time in the recording studio—after being in the band almost four years. (I still have no idea what David Terhune’s lyrics were in Normal Men, or Doug Summa’s in The Trollops.) I don’t know whether I speak for all drummers when I say this; I don’t know whether I speak for even three drummers . . . but . . . well, from where we sit, the lyrics don’t really matter. Privately (or at least privately until now), we suspect that they’re all versions of “Collar me, don’t collar me/ I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush.” We know what really matters—just us and the bassist, working away in the engine room to make sure everybody else has a good time. We’ve long suspected that the lead singer was really just saying “Today is her birthday/ They’re smoking cigars/ He’s got a chain of flowers/ And sows a bird in her knickers.” So thanks, everyone, for giving me indisputable proof. I will now spread the word to the rest of the U.S.D.A. (Underappreciated and Spiteful Drummers Association).
And my sincere apologies for not participating in the fun as it was unfolding over the past three or four days. I’ve been having some Serious Computer Trouble, which I’ll explain in another post.
Thursday, July 15, 2004
Pop lyrics written by space aliens
Veteran readers of this blog, from way back when it began in 1983, will know that I haven’t yet taken any of those “Which Paradise Lost Character Are You?” quizzes or surveys that ask one to express one’s preferences for Thomas Mann or James Joyce, boiling oil or the cat o’ nine tails, that sort of thing. But maybe it’s finally time for a little fun around here.
I’m asking readers to submit examples of pop lyrics so strange, so opaque, that they could not possibly have been written by members of our species. By my reckoning, fully one-quarter of the BeeGees’ oeuvre is eligible, which is no surprise, because everyone knows that the brothers Gibb are originally from the planet Zantok 6. Hence their famous line, “we can try to understand the New York Times’ effect on Man” from the quasi-autobiographical “Stayin’ Alive,” which many listeners have interpreted as a wry commentary on the Gibbs’ struggles to cope with the hostile gravity and atmosphere of Earth. And then, of course, as Janet has often pointed out, there’s the all-too-obvious
I looked at the skies, running my hands over my eyes
And I fell out of bed, hurting my head from things that I’d said
‘Till I finally died, which started the whole world living
Oh, If I’d only seen that the joke was on me.
But to start things off, I’m going to suggest the first verse and chorus of America’s “Tin Man”:
Sometimes late when things are real
And people share the gift of gab between themselves
Some are quick to take the bait
And catch the perfect prize that waits among the shelves
But Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man
That he didn’t, didn’t already have
And Cause never was the reason for the evening
Or the tropic of Sir Galahad.
OK, so these are the rules: the lyrics have to be written by actual or suspected space aliens. They can’t be about space aliens, so all those early Bowie songs don’t count. They can’t be merely stupid, like “mountains come out of the sky and they stand there,” because if we opened the field to stupid lyrics we’d be dealing with 80 to 90 percent of all songs ever written. And they can’t simply make no sense, like Aretha’s immortal, “let’s go back, let’s go back, let’s go way on way back when/ I didn’t even know you, you couldn’ta been too much more than ten (just a child),” which, after all, bears no discernable relation to whatever events have led her to demand that her addressee “think, think about what you’re tryin’ to do to me” (because, after all, she didn’t know him then, right?). The lyrics have to be so utterly bizarre that they elude (or exceed) human understanding altogether; they have to sound like real words in real phrases, but there must be something really wrong with them, something that gives them away as the product of advanced hominid life forms from other star systems.
Or from the tropic of Sir Galahad. Have fun--
Box turtle day
OK, so Tom Frank has a point-- every so often, the fundamentalist right throws itself behind some purely symbolic issue that doesn’t have a prayer of becoming law. But lost in all the sound and fury about same-sex marriage is the simple fact that Senator Cornyn was right: it really doesn’t affect your daily life very much if your neighbor marries a box turtle. My neighbor has a marriage license for his box turtle, and it hasn’t affected me a bit. Except that it did convince me to get a marriage license for my pet bee Eric. Actually, he’s half a bee. And I love him.
Ho ho ho, tee hee hee,
Eric the half a bee.
I love this hive employee-ee-ee
One summer afternoon by me
I love him carnally.
And my license is signed by one Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania’s Ministry of Housinge.