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Friday, April 29, 2005

Friday I’m in love

This Friday we continue our new feature—arbitrary but fun value judgments—with a twist:  our first ever guest blogger, the one and only Janet Lyon.  Take it away, Janet!

Greetings, Michael-blog readers:

This really isn’t anything more than a longish addendum to last week’s “perfect pop song” discussion. I am painfully aware that 204 comments have been added to that post, although I didn’t read them all because unlike some people in my household I actually have to prepare classes and show up in the classroom from time to time. So if you’re already pop-saturated, feel free to go grade a paper or boil an egg or download a pop song instead of reading this. Michael will be back soon, I promise.

In my view, the perfect pop song has one or both of two things: perfect (and perfectly mixed) back-up vocals, and/or perfect hooky instrumentation before and between verses (not to be confused with a “solo” in the middle of the song, which is entirely unimportant). Good back-up vocals act as a kind of enchanted glue for a pop song. On the one hand they body forth a lanky little community hanging out around the song: they understand that song very well, and they slip in comments like they were calling from the front porch, and they make that song bigger and chummier than it had any right to hope for. (Hand claps can sometimes accomplish this too, particularly if they’re drunken hand claps. I love hand claps.) On the other hand, back-up vocals impose a certain structural and emotional order that keeps the song anchored firmly in its pop-slot. Back-ups keep lead vocalists from going around the bend, and they also fill up those uncomfortable aural spaces that would otherwise accrue around a vocal line. (Imagine “Spirit in the Sky” without backups and you’ll see what I mean.)

Michael’s vote for Most Perfect Pop Song went to Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to be Kind” which, though unremarked upon by my ever-remarking-upon spouse, has perfect backup vocals. They are in any case perfect for the song, being at once banal and cynical. They’re also perfectly mixed. (And I guess, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I notice mixing and everything else about back-ups because I used to sing back-up vocals, and all my sisters and my brother and my sister-in-law have done or do back-up vocals, and my mother and her sisters did back-up vocals.) But “Cruel to be Kind” doesn’t have the other perfect pop component, that is, perfect inter-verse instrumentation—not that it has to, remember, since perfect pop songs need only one of two pop-ponents. My favorite pop song of all time doesn’t really even have discernible backups, but it does have the best before-and-between-verse instrumentation ever. It’s The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love,” and what’s better than that gorgeously fingered Rickenbacker-y guitar that opens the song and weaves its way through to the end, and even manages to make sense of Robert Smith’s smeary ecstatic ululations late in the track, when a mixing engineer less courageous than The Cure’s would have hit the fade button rather than keep up the guitar line?  (Plus the lyrics are fab.)

So now for a couple-two-three examples of back-ups. Usually I like an anonymous chunk of voices, but it should be said that there are some tremendous individual back-up vocalists, like Bonnie Bramlett, to name just one. Okay, she’s got great pipes whether she’s singing lead or back-ups, but to get a taste of what she can do behind a song try to find “Soul Shake,” recorded with Delbert McClinton. (Yes, she’s famous for slugging Elvis Costello after he drunkenly uttered what sounded to her like a racial slur. But she should also be famous for her voice.) Other surprising front-to-back or back-to-front standouts: Lyn Collins, Emmylou Harris and Joni Mitchell.  As for just-right pop back-ups: early specimens include “The Boy from New York City” (Ad Libs), “He’s So Fine” (Chiffons) pretty much everything by Sly and the Family Stone (think “Hot Fun,” “Stand”), tons of Beatles songs (there’s plenty about the Beatles on this blog already, but think “Girl” and “Paperback Writer”), most early Motown songs, and especially those immaculate Pips backing Gladys Knight, and especially on “Midnight Train to Georgia”; plus the Four Tops—e.g. “Bernadette,” the song that inspired a nearly-religious homage in Londonbeat’s “Thinking About You,” which, by the way, has great back-ups plus great inter-verse instrumentation. And of course, from Chicago, The Chi-Lites (“Have You Seen Her?”).

Three songs with admirable back-ups that cannot be admitted here: “Walk on the Wild Side” (too much heroin), Joe Cocker’s “A Little Help from my Friends” (too much beer-oin), and Leonard Cohen’s “So Long Marianne” (too many verses, too sensitive, but jeez, those back-ups and that plangent, drunken concertina!).  And another that would be admitted if anyone had heard it: Leon Russell’s “Bluebird.” More recently (and really happy-making): The New Pornographers, “The Laws Have Changed” and Futureheads, “Hounds of Love.” It’s so great having a 19-year-old son named Nick.

There are of course dozens and dozens of pop songs that have great hooky instrumentation, and I’ll name only an eclectic few: Blur, “Out of Time”; Liz Phair, “Supernova”; Hollies, “Bus Stop”; John Lennon, “It’s Only Love”; The Pretenders, “Back on the Chain Gang”; and, dare I say it, Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

Michael tells me I must stop.  Something about “band” “width.” And just as I was about to rattle off a a list of rarified pop songs that have both super back-ups and instrumentation that runs like a golden stitch through the song.  I’ll leave you with three: The Easybeats, “Friday On my Mind”; Ray Charles, “Unchain my Heart”; “Chain of Fools” and anything else that Aretha Franklin recorded with the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section.  The rest is up to you.

Have a good weekend, and remember to tip your back-up singers.

--Janet

Posted by Michael on 04/29 at 10:05 AM
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Thursday, April 28, 2005

Givin’ it up to Gawain

What, you thought that this rarely-literary blog would forget all about National Poetry Month?  Not a chance.  We’re just getting around to it the way we get around to everything, namely, at the next-to-last possible minute.

OK, so I’m not posting a whole poem, just an excerpt that happens to contain some of my favorite lines ever written in English – even if it happens to be a kind of English you just don’t hear very often these days.  The lines below are from the beginning of Book II of Gawain and the Green Knight, and there’s nothing very dramatic about them; all they do is narrate the passing of the year between the time Gawain decapitates the Green Knight in Arthur’s hall and the time he is compelled to ride to the Green Knight’s castle to receive a similar blow.  But if you really want to get a sense of why these lines rock, you have to read ‘em out loud.  Remember, the Great Vowel Shift hasn’t happened yet, all the g’s are hard, and words like “yeldes” and “foldes” are two syllables (not that this is syllabic verse, anyway).  Also, the word “lyghten” is pronounced something like “licten,” just as “bryght” is pronounced something like “bricked.” Don’t forget to roll your r’s, too.

Oh yeah, one more thing.  If you’re reading this at work, it helps to recite these lines really loud.

A yere yernes ful yerne, and yeldes never lyke;
The forme to the fynisment foldes ful selden.
Forthi this Yol overyede, and the yere after,
And uche sesoun serlepes sued after other:
After Crystenmasse com the crabbed Lentoun,
That fraystes flesch wyth the fysche and fode more symple.
Bot thenne the weder of the worlde wyth wynter hit threpes,
Colde clenges adoun, cloudes uplyften,
Schyre schedes the rayn in schowres ful warme,
Falles upon fayre flat, flowres there schewen.
Bothe groundes and the greves grene ar her wedes,
Bryddes busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of the softe somer that sues therafter
bi bonk;

And blossumes bolne to blowe
Bi rawes rych and ronk,
Then notes noble innoghe
Ar herde in wod so wlonk.

After, the sesoun of somer wyth the soft wyndes,
Quen Zeferus syfles hymself on sedes and erbes;
Wela wynne is the wort that waxes theroute,
When the donkande dewe dropes of the leves,
To bide a blysful blusch of the bryght sunne.
Bot then hyyes hervest, and hardenes hym sone,
Warnes hym for the wynter to wax ful rype;
He dryves wyth droght the dust for to ryse,
Fro the face of the folde to flyye ful hyghe;
Wrothe wynde of the welken wrasteles with the sunne,
The leves laucen fro the lyne and lyghten on the grounde,
And al grayes the gres that grene was ere;
Thenne al rypes and rotes that ros upon fyrst.
And thus yirnes the yere in yisterdayes mony,
And wynter wyndes ayayn, as the worlde askes,
no fage,

Til Meghelmas mone
Was cumen wyth wynter wage.
Then thenkkes Gawan ful sone
Of his anious vyage. 

The whole passage is amazing, but I love it especially for its opening couplet, which the footnotes of my Cawley and Anderson edition render as “A year passes swiftly, and events never repeat themselves; the beginning is very seldom like the end” (178).  Yeah, yeah, true enough, but that loses something in translation, you might say.  For the couplet does not merely tell us that you can never tell what a year will bring; it couches this cliché in the language of the “forme” somehow folding to the fynisment, thus at once revivifying and literalizing our sense of how the events of our lives don’t quite fit our plans.  The couplet renews our perception of the truism, making the stone stony, as Viktor Shklovsky would say.  What’s more, the syntax makes the most of the potential relation of the forme to the fynisment, leaving the verb hanging for a moment – and leaving “seldom,” a discouraging word, for the very end of the sentence – while we imagine that maybe, just this once, the forme will fit the fynisment just fine.  In other words, if you read the line really slowly, you get this:  The forme to the fynisment foldes . . . without a hitch?  like a hand in glove?  if you give it a little English?  Nope, ful selden.  Damn.  Ain’t that the truth.

Even if you’re familiar with Middle English, and are inclined to line up this sumptuous rendering of the seasons with the much more famous opening eighteen lines of The Canterbury Tales in order to do a little compare-and-contrast on the topos of the passing year (you know, “Whan that April with his showres soote / The droughte of March hath perced to the roote” and so forth), I think you’ll find that the language of Gawain is wilder, thicker, and more richly textured than Chaucer’s (and that’s saying something), from the exuberant bursting-and-burgeoning of “Bryddes busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen” to the alien “wod so wlonk.” Of course, one poem is alliterative while the other is written in that five-iambs thing, so some of Gawain’s sound effects come with the territory.  But still.  Great stuff, all in all, even for a theory-addled postmodernist like me.

I can’t wait for National Prose Month!

Posted by Michael on 04/28 at 12:28 PM
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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Givin’ it up to the GForce

GForce, of course, being the alter ego of one Graham Larkin, humanities fellow at Stanford University and professor of art history.  This diffident blog salutes Larkin not merely for penning the exquisite phrase, “this is classic Horowitziana — a complete lie mired in a mighty river of bullshit,” but for his whole essay, sure to be read in the weeks and months to come as the definitive word on the subject.  Highly recommended!

And while I’m looking over some of Larkin’s concluding paragraphs—

By lying about the AAUP, Horowitz hopes to divert readers from the fact that this fine organization came out categorically against all university speech codes in a resolution approved in 1992. That document, reprinted in AAUP’s fully-indexed Redbook, unambiguously asserts that “[o]n a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden,” and that “rules that ban or punish speech based upon its content cannot be justified.”

Why is Horowitz so eager to make us think that the AAUP actually supports speech codes and “political thought police”? Mainly so he can then construe their reasoned resistance to his efforts to police knowledge and relativize truth as an unreasonable affront to student liberty. This rhetorical inversion of the truth is part of the larger strategy of doublespeak that leads him to couch his coercive speech legislation in the language of freedom and diversity, as if it were some kind of newly fortified version of the First Amendment.

-- I figure this might be as good a time as any to announce that I’ve recently been elected to the National Council of the AAUP.  A fine organization, indeed.

Posted by Michael on 04/27 at 07:21 AM
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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Gonna rock this town

So here I am in the nation’s capital, getting ready for tonight’s big event, my rendezvous with a reading group consisting of a bunch of smart journalists and freelancers and folks from cool unions like SEIU and CWA and UNITE HERE.  We’re discussing Stuart Hall’s 1988 book, The Hard Road to Renewal:  Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left. (And the fact that the book is now out of print speaks volumes about the crisis of the left, in my humble-blog opinion.)

I’ll begin liveblogging the discussion at around 8 pm, in what I hope will be a revolutionary breakthrough for the entire genre of liveblogging.  So far as I know, not even the redoubtable Fafblog has attempted to liveblog a book discussion group.  And like the song says, we’re not gonna stop / until the entire historical conjuncture has been adequately theorized / gonna rock this town / oh yeah.  Hello, D.C.!  How’s everybody feelin’ tonight?

UPDATE, 11 pm:  I was only kidding about the liveblogging.  The discussion group was really lively, though.  But even after three hours of talking, we still didn’t figure out how the progressive left can form a hegemonic historic bloc!  As always, suggestions welcome.  Me, I’ve got to catch a 5 a.m. train back home.

Posted by Michael on 04/26 at 02:59 PM
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Monday, April 25, 2005

The end of faith, part two

Last week I posted an excerpt from Sam Harris’s The End of Faith – an excerpt that I rather like.  Harris’s aggressive secularism had a curious effect on me: I am so very sick and tired of Christians in the United States complaining that they are discriminated against, that their professions of faith are not permitted in the public sphere, that liberal “elites” do not give them their proper respect, et cetera, et cetera, that I felt a kind of guilty pleasure at Harris’s sweeping dismissals of most of the world’s religions. 

And then I came to Harris’s chapter on philosophy, and his sweeping dismissal of American pragmatism:

The pragmatist’s basic premise is that, try as we might, the currency of our ideas cannot be placed on the gold standard of correspondence with reality as it is.  To call a statement “true” is merely to praise it for how it functions in some area of discourse; it is not to say anything about how it relates to the universe at large.  From the point of view of pragmatism, the notion that our beliefs might “correspond with reality” is absurd. . . .

If all of this seems rather academic, it might be interesting to note that Sayyid Qutb, Osama bin Laden’s favorite philosopher, felt that pragmatism would spell the death of American civilization.  He thought that it would, in [Paul] Berman’s phrase, “undermine America’s ability to fend off its enemies.” There may be some truth to this assertion.  Pragmatism, when civilizations come clashing, does not appear likely to be very pragmatic.  To lose the conviction that you can actually be right – about anything – seems a recipe for the End of Days chaos envisioned by Yeats: when “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” I believe that relativism and pragmatism have already done much to muddle our thinking on a variety of subjects, many of which have more than a passing relevance to the survival of civilization.

In philosophical terms, then, pragmatism can be directly opposed to realism.  For the realist, our statements about the world will be “true” or “false” not merely in virtue of how they function amid the welter of our other beliefs, or with reference to any culture-bound criteria, but because reality simply is a certain way, independent of our thoughts.  Realists believe that there are truths about the world that may exceed our capacity to know about them; there are facts of the matter whether or not we can bring such facts into view.  To be an ethical realist is to believe that in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered – and thus we can be right or wrong in our beliefs about them.

This, folks, is a simply stupefying passage.  It would be one thing to come across it in a book that called for a return to the Eternal Verities and the restoration of respect for figures of authority; it is quite another to read it in a book that demands that we should have no beliefs of any kind for which we do not have empirical evidence.  Look at that last sentence again: moral philosophy is to be construed as analogous to physics, and philosophers are the people who discover the objectively true principles of the moral universe (where “objectively true” means “existing independently of human perception and understanding”).  In effect, Harris’s book demands that we get rid of all religious beliefs . . . and hand ultimate interpretive authority in moral matters over to the philosopher-kings who will “discover” the way morality “really” operates out there in the universe.

Especially fulsome is Harris’s suggestion that we should abandon the philosophical tradition that runs from John Dewey to Richard Rorty because Sayyid Qutb may have been right to consider it degenerate.  I simply don’t see how this counts as a legitimate form of argument; after all, Islamists have disdain for any number of features of contemporary American life, and one does not see secularists of Harris’s stripe rushing to condemn homosexuality, clean-shaven men, and women wearing tank tops.  It seems very strange that Harris would find “some truth” in Qutb’s understanding of American culture in this one respect, especially since pragmatism – in the words of its proponents, not the words of its enemies – represents nothing more or less than an attempt to secularize philosophy, to insist that moral principles are artifacts of our own invention, and not “discoveries” of previously unuttered statements floating around in the ether or buried deep within the Earth’s crust.

Once again, pragmatism is not relativism, and pragmatists are not barred from claiming that they are right about “anything.” Pragmatists simply insist that there is no antecedent, final goal toward which our moral principles are moving, and no moral principles that exist independently of all human perception.  For some reason, many professional philosophers like to believe that we must consider philosophy as analogous to physics, and that we ordinary folk must agree with them that they are searching not merely for moral propositions that might prove to be both persuasive and beneficial to humankind – injunctions against slavery or torture, perhaps, both of which strike me as good ideas – but in fact for Platonic Ideas that are lying out there somewhere waiting to be discovered.  I can understand why many professional philosophers would want to believe this, but I cannot understand why any one of them would propose this conception of Truth as an antidote to, of all things, religious fundamentalism.

And what happens to the person who believes that he has not merely invented a potentially persuasive and beneficial proposition, but, rather, discovered an objectively true fact about the moral universe?  How does he deal with people who disagree with his interpretation of what is “really” true in the world?  Does he understand them as people with competing plausible interpretations of what is really true, people who must be persuaded otherwise by means of discourse, or as people who are simply possessed by Error and who cannot be considered moral agents at all?

It’s worth remembering that one of the reasons Richard Rorty espouses Deweyan pragmatism is that he thinks of it as a check against precisely the kind of philosophical hubris Harris displays here in The End of Faith.  As Rorty writes in “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids”:

Despite my relatively early disillusionment with Platonism, I am very glad that I spent all those years reading philosophy books.  For I learned something that still seems very important: to distrust the intellectual snobbery that originally led me to read them.  If I had not read all those books, I might never have been able to stop looking for what Derrida calls “a full presence beyond the reach of play,” for a luminous synoptic vision.

By now I am pretty sure that looking for such a presence and a vision is a bad idea.  The main trouble is that you might succeed, and your success might let you imagine that you have something more to rely on that the tolerance and decency of your fellow human beings.  The democratic community of Dewey’s dreams is a community in which nobody imagines that.  It is a community in which everybody thinks that it is human solidarity, rather than knowledge of something not merely human, that really matters.  The actually existing approximations to such a fully democratic, fully secular community now seem to me the greatest achievements of our species.

Nothing in Rorty’s conception of pragmatism prevents one from condemning slavery or criticizing religious fundamentalism.  And everything about this conception of pragmatism allows one to suggest that Harris’s espousal of “realism” is a recipe for moral intolerance and philosophical arrogance.

OK, I’m off to Washington, D.C. for a couple of days.  Might blog, might not.  If I happen to discover any universally true moral principles along the way, I’ll be sure to let you know.

UPDATE:  For those of you who might be interested in such things, I published a pragmatist defense of disability rights/ citizenship rights a couple of years ago in Dissent, and it looks something like this.

Posted by Michael on 04/25 at 09:49 AM
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Saturday, April 23, 2005

Hey you!  Stop reading this blog!

I’m taking a few minutes out of a busy weekend to let you all know that this abject blog is now officially in crisis mode.  Having entertained more than 50,000 visitors per week for the past two weeks—and having incompetently posted a couple of uncompressed photos along the way—we are so egregiously exceeding our bandwidth allowance that it’s not funny.  In fact, Kurt took some time out of his actual vacation to send me an urgent e-mail (subject line:  whoa baby) letting me know (a) that we were basically running more than double our bandwidth limit and (b) that just after he’d renegotiated the limit, we surged to something like 5G a day.  OK, so we compressed the photos.  But still, the growing pains are intense.

This blog has never sought reader donations, and we’re not about to start now.  I thought for a while about looking for corporate or foundation sponsorship—I hear Wal-Mart is looking to break into the blogging business, and I considered asking Richard Mellon Scaife for a friendly helping hand—but I just don’t want to deal with the paperwork.  That leaves only one solution:  I have to start driving readers away.  I’m sorry about this—you know I love you all—but I don’t see any other way out.

What’s especially curious about this most recent spike in readership is that it comes just after Butterflies and Wheels did not recommend this blog.  Back on April 13, Ophelia Benson wrote:

The blog overall I don’t recommend. Bérubé has always struck me as quite self-infatuated, and unpleasant to people he disagrees with. . . . The combination of aggression and self-absorption is not all that appealing. . . .  [S]elf self self always seems to creep in. If only he could keep the style and bag the preening.

When I read that, my heart just sank.  Butterflies and Wheels does not recommend my blog—and it was personal, not business!  Readers, you know perfectly well there’s no way for me to keep the style and bag the preening.  So I figured I might as well fold my little blog-tent and go home.  I mean, sure, this humble blog has been, from time to time, smugly self-satisfied and absurdly self-aggrandizing, but self-infatuated?  Ouch!  Surely my days were numbered.  Imagine my surprise, then, to be hit not only with Ms. Benson’s stern disapproval (which hurts quite enough on its own), but with a series of overage charges to boot.  April is indeed the cruellest—and the busiest—month.

But I think I have my solution to all this traffic, for now.  For all of you who didn’t get the memo:  Butterflies and Wheels does not recommend this blog.  Go someplace else.  And if you don’t, I warn you:  I will come back tomorrow and blog about my hockey season.  Don’t make me do that.

Posted by Michael on 04/23 at 01:15 PM
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