Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: St Vincent is Listening

Two tangentially-related tunes for St Vincent’s new album release and an unexpectedly familiar companion song

After seeing the video for “Actor Out of Work” by St Vincent, and especially after the performance on Austin City Limits, I was blown away. It felt like the first genuinely new music I’d heard in years. Her albums since then have been hit-or-miss with me, and I sincerely hope that never changes.

Sometimes I love it (Actor), sometimes I hate it (Daddy’s Home), but she is fully invested in making each album a presentation instead of just a collection of songs. Annie Clark is one of the only artists playing arena-sized venues who always seems like she’s doing exactly what she wants to do. The hit songs almost feel like an accidental bonus.

All Born Screaming is my favorite of her albums since St Vincent, feeling like she’s been collecting favorite influences across her whole career and presenting them as an album instead of a new glam rock persona. So far “Flea” and “Big Time Nothing” are my favorite tracks, but the first release is called “Broken Man” and has one hell of a great video.

The other night I spent the better part of an hour just driving around the valley so I could listen to the album uninterrupted. So much of it feels familiar, as elements drift in and out of her songs, never feeling quite like a pastiche or a direct homage, but like a bunch of original compositions by someone with an encyclopedic familiarity with pop, rock, and funk music. Is that Deep Purple? Led Zeppelin? Something the Beastie Boys sampled?

I knew almost immediately what the beginning of “Broken Man” reminded me of, though: “Misinformed” by Soul Coughing, from El Oso, easily one of my top 5 albums of all time. Was it a direct reference? I highly doubt it, but then I also wouldn’t be surprised if she were drawing from late 90s alternative as much as 70s rock.

All of Soul Coughing’s records, but El Oso in particular, were full of sounds I’d never heard before, but had that same feeling of odd familiarity, like having a nightmare about listening to jazz from an alien planet. A lot of what I loved about Actor came from Annie Clark saying she was inspired by the music from Sleeping Beauty. So maybe they have more in common than I’d originally thought!

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: On the 45

Going back even farther into my past with a couple of tunes I listened to at 45 rpm

Previously on Spectre Collie… I was reminiscing about the first songs I ever bought with my own money, but I started to wonder whether I could recall any of the songs I pestered my parents into getting for me. Back in that shadowy time between the Carpenters albums and novelty compilations from K-TEL of my youth, when I started listening to songs that people my age actually liked.

One of the first singles I remember having was “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” by The Gap Band. I was obsessed with that song, and knowing me, I’m sure I went around making the whistling sound when I hummed it.

Hearing it now, and watching that video, I’m kind of surprised that it’s still such a banger. I remember it being kind of corny, even as a kid. There’s no way in hell I was cool enough as a kid to be thinking, “Just you wait until people start sampling the Gap Band, and you’ll be able to appreciate it how prescient I was.” I don’t think I was even pompous enough to use the word “prescient” back then.

The way I know I wasn’t cool back then is that the song I was even more obsessed with was “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone)” by Chilliwack.1Yes, I did have to look up the name of the band today.

I misremembered the song as being by a Gap Band-like one-hit-wonder group, and man, was I way off. I couldn’t hear on vinyl just how white and how Canadian they were. In retrospect, it is kind of a sampler or mash-up of a lot of other songs from roughly around the same time that became my favorites, “Black Water” by the Doobie Brothers, and “Leave It” by Yes in particular.

It also reminds me of the early 80s, because I keep thinking of being in middle school band and our band director yelling at us because we kept rushing and getting off beat. (It’s not just me, right? The chorus sounds like it’s in 4.5/4 time or something).

Also I hope it doesn’t come across as making fun (especially since I’m the last person to be making fun of how anyone looks, especially in the early 1980s), but the thing that struck me was how much the lead singer of Chilliwack looks like he was drawn by Jack Kirby.

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    Yes, I did have to look up the name of the band today.

Paved with some sort of intention

Follow-up post about Late Night With the Devil, with a few spoiler-filled questions and criticisms

I was content with my take on Late Night With the Devil for a while. I was happy to declare it as a movie that worked on its own terms, even if it didn’t work completely on mine, and I could appreciate it as a lurid haunted house-style throwback. I was even a little proud of myself for watching a movie and for once, not overthinking it.

And then I started overthinking it.

I thought that this was a movie that didn’t feel any need for subtlety. The characters tell you exactly who they are, the performances are broad, the effects are over-the-top, and it was overall intended more to be fun than genuinely scary. (Even I, as one of the biggest scary-movie cowards, never felt my heart rate go up even a tick except for a scene where a man intentionally cuts his hand with a knife). The thing I ended up liking the most about the movie was that it knew what it wanted to be.

But I read a few reviews — a couple from outlets I’d expected to be a lot more cynical and less charitable than my take — that were so effusive that I started to wonder if I’d missed something while being condescending.

The main question I had — and I won’t go into details until after a spoiler warning — was whether the movie was intended to be surprising. And I think it’s kind of interesting, because my initial takeaway was that it didn’t matter.

I’m definitely not a proponent of the whole “death of the author” line of thought. Even if it did have value when it was coined, it has no place now, and it does nothing but promote shallow and overly-literal takes on art. (And occasionally, get used by people who want to use progressive ideas like diversity, inclusiveness, and cultural sensitivity as a bludgeon).

But here, it seemed to me, was the rare case where the intention of the filmmakers didn’t actually matter, since it works fine either way. I thought I understood the story from the opening montage, so I spent the movie enjoying the tension of watching that story play out. That’s the main difference between horror and something like suspense or mystery stories: it’s not about the twists, but about watching the inevitable descent, knowing that you can’t do anything to stop what’s coming.

So I was initially confused that the ending of Late Night With the Devil spent so long belaboring the details that I’d just assumed the audience already knew. Eventually, I figured that it was a case of the movie having it both ways: if the ending surprised you, good. If it just showed you a horrific take on what you already knew had happened, also good.

But it still doesn’t fit with some aspects of the movie that I thought were unclear or just plain didn’t make sense, and for that, I need a spoiler warning.

Continue reading “Paved with some sort of intention”

One Thing I Like About Late Night With The Devil

The story of a 1970s late night talk show that aired a live demon possession

The moment Late Night With the Devil clicked with me is when I stopped comparing it to the movie I’d been expecting, and started watching it for what it actually is.

The intriguing premise suggests a period piece found footage horror movie: a narrator1Michael Ironside! sets us in the late 1970s, recounting the story of a late night talk show called Night Owls that can never seem to compete with Johnny Caron’s Tonight Show. Against the back drop of the political and cultural turmoil of the late 70s, and the satanic panic, the show’s host Jack Delroy spent years trying to build popularity for his show and get out from under Carson’s shadow. What we’re seeing is the “master tape” from the Halloween night broadcast, which featured a stage psychic; an Amazing Randi-style skeptic; and a parapsychologist with her troubled patient, a 13-year-old girl who survived a cult worshipping the demon Abraxas.

For a while, it does seem like they’re going for verisimilitude. The set direction feels spot-on, not just for a 1970s talk show, but specifically one made in New York. (It’s good that the money went into perfecting the set, since almost the entire movie takes place on one set). There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot in the opening montage showing a character who looks a lot like Orson Welles in his 1970s talk show era, and for those of us who watched those shows during our formative years, that one image establishes the setting perfectly.

But as the movie continues, it becomes apparent that Late Night With the Devil is more interested in telling its story than in being a pitch-perfect found-footage movie. The performances are pretty broad, always hovering in the zone between realism and camp. There are minor, nit-picking anachronisms; shots that wouldn’t have happened in a live broadcast; cross-fades that weren’t in style even if the technology to do them was available for live TV; “behind the scenes” shots that simply wouldn’t have been possible; and a bunch of other things that imply that whenever the filmmakers had to choose between reality and setting a mood, they always chose the latter.

In the end, the tone of the movie is much more like a Hollywood Horror Nights house than a modern found footage movie. It has a ton of ideas about theme, mood, character, and story, and it throws them out like an interconnected series of funhouse horror vignettes. The commercial breaks and behind-the-scene moments are more like transitions between broad story beats than like actual behind-the-scenes footage.

And when I say the performances are broad to the point of being camp, I don’t mean that disparagingly. David Dastmalchian as Jack Delroy has to be the most nuanced, managing a performance-within-a-performance that has to shift from corny to sincere to craven to haunted within the same scene. I was even more impressed by Ingrid Torelli as the young possessed girl Lilly, especially for perfectly playing the eeriness of someone who won’t stop staring directly at the camera. On the whole, though, the performances felt more like those of the scare actors inside a modern horror house, shouting out their lines every 60 seconds to make sure the audience gets the point of the current story beat.

Ultimately, that horror house feeling is what I liked2But didn’t ever quite love most about Late Night With the Devil. It feels like a fiercely independent movie3It feels odd calling it “low budget,” considering how aggressively it’s been marketed, and how there’s an almost comically long series of production company logos at the beginning, where the filmmakers had a very specific idea about the tone and the mood and what they believed was important, even if it didn’t fit into the modern Blumhouse mold. Even more than the sets and costumes, it feels like a throwback to the late 1970s. Especially the pre-1980s horror that valued creepy and scary moments over intense realism.

If on the other hand, you’re interested in an independent film that does commit completely to its premise, I’ve got to give another recommendation for Deadstream. It goes much more for horror-comedy than Late Night With the Devil, and in my opinion does more with its modest budget. The movies have very little in common apart from a single set and a nod to live broadcast (and both being on Shudder, I guess), but that shows how much room there is for creativity in horror movies without big studio intervention.

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    Michael Ironside!
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    But didn’t ever quite love
  • 3
    It feels odd calling it “low budget,” considering how aggressively it’s been marketed, and how there’s an almost comically long series of production company logos at the beginning

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Bitchin’ Mix Tape ’83

Two tangentially-related tunes from my troubled teens

It’s time to flip that “Metal” switch on your Walkman, because these two tunes are prompted by the question “what was the first album you ever bought with your own money?”

Mine was in 1983, and it was “Goody Two Shoes” by Adam Ant. Or I guess technically it was Friend or Foe, but I had no interest in the rest of the album and just wanted that one song. I walked into the local Turtles and asked for the cassingle, only to be told by the store clerk that they didn’t have it, and I’d have to buy the whole album. So not only was it the first album I bought with my own money, but the first step in a decades-long career of being sneered at by record store clerks.

I don’t mean any offense to Mr Ant, but even as an extremely impressionable young gay lad, I wasn’t that taken with his whole persona, and I just thought he wore too much make-up. (Of course, I did like his Honda ad with Grace Jones, though). It would probably make for a better memoir if I could trace everything back to that one pivotal record purchase, but I was just listening to whatever was popular. And my phase of listening to Duran Duran, Culture Club, Human League, etc. was short-lived, because of…

Pyromania by Def Leppard. I bought this album, as did every other 12-year-old boy in America, and I felt that I had somehow leveled up. It was time to put away childish things and graduate to the section of the music store categorized as “Hard Rock.” It was my gateway album, luring me into the dangerous world of bands like Van Halen, with its dark themes like being in high school and horny for your teacher; and Led Zeppelin, with its dark and occult-tinged songs about Hobbits.

I was especially proud of my refined tastes, because while everyone else was listening to “Rock of Ages,” I, an aesthete, understood that “Photograph” was by far the best song from the album. I can still remember my mom asking me what I was listening to, and I very seriously warned her that she might not like it because it had “very hard guitars.” (She listened to a bit and nodded and said “that’s nice.”)

The thing is: while so much of 1983 is undeniably silly, “Photograph” is still a fantastic song, even in the 21st century.

But At What Cost?!

Thinking about cost vs value, and living in a world where computers are status symbols

One thing to know about the Vision Pro headset is that it’s very expensive. If you weren’t aware of that, I’m not sure exactly how, since people will remind you of it every possible chance they get. Even though it’s been several months since the initial announcement, and everyone’s had a chance to get over the initial shock, and everybody’s had time to decide whether or not it makes sense for them to buy one1And again: even as a fan of the device, I still say it doesn’t make sense for most people to buy one, it’s still near-impossible to see or hear anyone mention it without also mentioning the price. I’d been wondering whether Apple had maybe stealth-changed the name of the thing to “The $3500 Apple Vision Pro.”

And I’m not claiming it’s inexpensive; it’s objectively not. I’m a lifelong gadget hound who’s been obsessed with AR and VR to varying degrees over the past several years. When I first tried the headset, I felt like I’d been teleported a decade or so into the future. And even I had considerable difficulty spending that much money.

But what’s been confusing to me is why this product in particular is getting singled out as beyond the pale. Camera drones have gotten pretty popular, but I can’t recall ever seeing a comment to the effect of “Glad you paid $1200-$2100 for that video of your backyard, chief!” Cell phones crossed the $1000 barrier a while ago — and that’s not even mentioning paying $1500-$2000 for an Android phone if it’s got a folding screen on it — but I don’t hear a lot of, “Nice work, boss, you spent over a thousand bucks to send text messages!” I keep seeing recommendations for this video from The Verge about a popular fixed-focal-length, point-and-shoot camera that “won’t break the bank,” and I was stunned to see that it was $1600! And some of the people who most relentlessly kvetch about the price of the Vision Pro will often, in the next sentence, casually mention that they use an Apple Studio Display, which is an Apple-branded monitor that costs $1600.2At least Apple includes the stand with that one, as far as I can tell.

I’m proficient enough in arithmetic to recognize that the headset is more expensive than any one of those examples, but it’s also got a lot more stuff in it. It’s essentially an M2 iPad Pro with a secondary processor dedicated solely to passthrough, two displays with bleeding-edge pixel density, a couple of really good speakers, and an assload of sensors and cameras. (Not to mention the polishing cloth). If it were simply a case of dollar-per-component, the math doesn’t justify the outrage.

I didn’t really get it until just recently. I was watching a video on YouTube, and the Algorithm must’ve been so pleased with itself for choosing a video so specifically suited to me, because it was about a bougie gay couple going on a Disney cruise. As they were describing the boarding process, they showed their luggage, panning over a stack of suitcases. And right there at the top of it was the unmistakable white, puffy Vision Pro case from Apple, which retails at $199.3For the record: the case I bought for mine was $20 on Amazon.

And even as somebody who’s a fan of the device, who’s a strong believer in grown-ups being able to make their own decisions about what they spend their money on, and who was able to (after some effort) come up with a justification for buying one for myself, and who’s even considered taking it on a flight and Disney cruise in the near future, I had an immediate, visceral reaction to seeing that case:

“Man, what a douche.”

Continue reading “But At What Cost?!”
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    And again: even as a fan of the device, I still say it doesn’t make sense for most people to buy one
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    At least Apple includes the stand with that one, as far as I can tell.
  • 3
    For the record: the case I bought for mine was $20 on Amazon.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Shazam!

Two tunes tangentially related by the fact that I can never remember what they’re called

On the one hand, it’s unsettling to think that teenagers now think of the 1990s in the same way that I thought of the 1970s when I was a teenager. But then I look back at all the weird hair and clothes of the 1990s, and I realize that yeah, it tracks.

But it hits different when you can remember the things that all The Youths think of as ancient history. I can hear a song from the late 90s and immediately be hit with a wave of memories: being an adult (more or less) in Athens or Atlanta, driving on the freeway in sweltering heat, listening to 99X as they played the song of the moment in constant rotation to guarantee that it would be burned in my memory thirty years later.

For some of these songs, I can — and do — pull up the entire melody, the lyrics, and even details from the videos from the darkest recesses of my brain, out of nowhere, at a moment’s notice. I can usually remember every minor detail about them… except for the title of the song, or who sang it.

One of those is “Out of My Head” by Fastball. It would often pop back in my mind unprompted, and in the dark days before Shazam, it would drive me crazy that I had a stray tune that I simultaneously vividly remembered and couldn’t place. Even after the advent of marketing-driven music-listening technology, I’d have to wait until I happened to hear it — most often in the waiting area of a restaurant playing “the oldies” — before I could try and catch it.

It’s a solid, short, and sweet song, much better than “The Way” in my opinion. One of those songs that sounds like the 1990s but also timeless — you can vaguely imagine it was probably played on Dawson’s Creek or some other WB show, but it’s not quite as anchored in the past as something like “I Don’t Want to Wait.” I like the song enough that I’ll even forgive the band for those sideburns.

The prime example, though, is “Sleeping Satellite” by Tasmin Archer. I really love this song, and it never fails to remind me of the early 1990s and my awareness at the time that we were genuinely entering a new decade, as opposed to just stretching the 80s out for several more years. It was a much better harbinger of the coming of decade of music than, say, “Sadeness” by Enigma. (Turns out people weren’t actually as into Gregorian chants as the music industry had hoped?)

But I’ll be damned if I could remember the name of it. Looking through my Shazam history is hilarious, in that “Sleeping Satellite” keeps popping up over and over again. Evidently I spent years realizing, “Oh I love this song! What’s it called again?” and then immediately forgetting.

Wait, what were we talking about, again? Oh, hey, I love this song! What’s it called?

The Discreet Charm of the 4 8 15 16 23 42

Feeling inexplicably charmed by the dumb idiot who was obsessed with a bunch of people on an island

(For the record: yes, I do still remember The Numbers completely unprompted, years later).

Earlier today I was looking for an old post on this very blog, and as often happens these days, I found myself reading through the adjacent and related posts, trying to make sense of what exactly past me was trying to talk about.

It’s rare that I give past versions of myself any grace at all, so I was surprised by how much I was charmed by the whole uselessness of this website. On top of all the broken image links from a failed server migration years ago, there’s the fact that I was writing posts on the assumption that 1) everybody else was watching or reading the same stuff I was, and 2) I was obligated to be obtuse so as not to spoil it for my “audience.”

As a result, there are just dozens and dozens of posts about Lost and Battlestar Galactica where not only do I have no idea what I was talking about, but they’re so alien to me that they might’ve been written by another person. I was clearly enthralled by whatever storyline happened to be going on at the moment, making oblique references to plot events and throwing out names and descriptions of characters I no longer recognize, that trying to read them now feels somewhere between stumbling onto a complete stranger’s text messages, and the Voynich manuscript.

But instead of smacking my forehead, I’m just happy to see myself so completely engrossed in something, and clearly enjoying it even as I complained about it. And I’m charmed by my naiveté assuming that anyone other than me would be reading it. It’s essentially a private journal trying to pass as a public discussion, meaning it fails at both. But it does survive as something else, an extremely nerdy time capsule.

I do wish that I hadn’t spent so much time in online forums (and soon after, social media) that I was constantly writing on the defensive, filtering every thought and every sentence as if it were opening myself to correction and criticism. I can somewhat place posts at different periods in my life without having to check the dates, not by anchoring them to significant life events, but just by getting a sense of how earnest or how guarded I was being.

And obviously, I wish that they were anchored by significant life events for me, and not a bunch of fictional characters on an island or a spaceship. But that kind of stuff doesn’t really belong on a public blog. And I frankly appreciate the distance from having to read a genuine account of what exactly I was thinking at traumatic or stressful times. It’s a lot more charming to read my younger reactions to stuff happening to Desmond and Penny and Starbuck and Boomer than to myself.

More often than I’d like, I’ll come across a post that’s either mean-spirited or crass, and think “who is this asshole?” But as somebody who tends to behave with the mindset of “Dance like everybody’s not only watching but recording it zoomed-in and broadcasting it live to everyone you care about,” I like the idea of a decades-long record of myself going full-on nerd and getting excited about inconsequential stuff.

Literacy 2024: Book 3: This Is How You Lose the Time War

A sci-fi fantasy love story across the multiverse

Book
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Synopsis
Red and Blue are elite agents on opposing factions working across the entirety of time and space to shape the multiverse to their own ends. At the end of a particularly epic battle, Red finds an enigmatic message from her adversary. This begins an increasingly elaborate correspondence between the two, with each message taking bizarre forms that require years or even centuries to compose.

Pros

  • Imaginative world-building without exposition. Each section describes fantastic futures or complete alternate histories in just a few pages.
  • Concepts like “upthread,” “downthread,” and “strands” become clear without ever needing explicit explanation.
  • The format is repeated without ever becoming too repetitive; you get the sense of anticipation that each character feels as they wait for the next message.
  • Gets the emotional beats right and reminds the reader of the universality of falling in love — the stages of wariness, excitement, infatuation, passion, comfort, and (sometimes) despair.
  • Many evocative passages that emphasize feeling more than description; you get a sense of apocalypse, cruelty, peace, nature, and so on without belaboring the scene setting.

Cons

  • Often feels over-written and florid, as the language often seems to dance around an idea instead of making it clear. I ended up skimming over much of the book, because the metaphors and abstractions failed to land more often than not.
  • The writing was so poetic, while the settings were often so fantastic, that it became impossible to tell what was metaphor and what was literal.
  • The attempts at jokes, references, and wordplay felt corny in the way of very, very smart people trying to be funny.
  • The characters are practically omnipotent, and the described worlds so fantastic and cataclysmic, that there’s no sense of stakes for the characters or boundaries to their universe. Stuff happens, but we can’t ever anticipate what the implications might be or how dire or permanent the situation is.
  • I never got the sense of why or how characters fall in love. The beats of a romantic relationship feel familiar and genuine, and I can see the characters reacting to each stage of the relationship, but they’re moments that feel dictated by the authors instead of motivated by genuine connection.

Synopsis
Overall, this feels like a very well-written and well-thought-out story that just isn’t for me. It’s excellent at establishing mood and conjuring images of fantastic alternate realities. The overall plot uses time travel effectively to give an idea of a romance that is so fundamental and so epic that it is both fated to happen and also threatened at every moment across multiple timelines. But these characters are archetypes more than genuine personalities, so the story on the whole seemed to be aimed at readers who love the idea of an epic, universe-shaking love, romance for romance’s sake, instead of one driven by the characters themselves.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Blackbird

Two songs about despair and about hope, and a digression about how ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of

In addition to the obvious connections, these two songs have something else in common: I didn’t know much, if anything, about them until recently. Which leads to a digression about one of the things I hate most about social media and “online culture,” which is that it treats ignorance as something to be ashamed of.

The key example: I was one of the people who’d never heard of the Partition of India, or at least heard of it in a way that I could retain, until it was mentioned in Ms Marvel. Most of my history education was overwhelmingly euro-centric, meaning that we would often hear about the devastating effects of colonialism, but rarely hear about what came afterwards, when the colonists lost interest. So I had an impression of post-Raj India as being a political restructuring, with some interesting geographical trivia afterwards, like how there are enclaves-within-enclaves still in Pakistan. I had no idea of the magnitude of the deaths, or how much of it was a religious conflict, until I heard about it on a light-hearted television series about a teen super hero.

And on social media, that was inexcusable, apparently. I saw dozens and dozens of people dragging out their smdhs to scold us for our shocking ignorance. It wasn’t even framed as “our American and western European education systems are failing us!” but as a personal failing on our part.

Which is asinine, and in my mind a clear example of how Twitter (and now Bluesky) are rotten, and were rotten long before Elon Musk even picked up a sink.1In fact, the rottenness at its core might’ve been a major draw for an unrepentant douchebag looking to buy a few million public admirers. They mimic healthy, functioning communities, but in fact just magnify all the problems with real communities. In particular, the eagerness for people to practice performative outrage and self-righteous condemnation. Any place that would frame ignorance, or finding out we were wrong about something, as if it were contemptible is missing the entire point of what an actual global discussion should be about.

So with that all said, here’s two songs about a topic I know a little bit more about — the culture around the American Civil Rights movement — but still not nearly enough.

For instance: I’d never heard of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” until this morning.2Based on the YouTube comments, I guess quite a few people first discovered it from the series Lovecraft Country, which I hope gives some people on Bluesky something to complain about. I found it while looking for covers of the Paul McCartney song, although it was recorded several years earlier.

It’s a powerful gut-punch of a song, unlike anything else I’d heard from Nina Simone. Everything I’ve heard from Nina Simone until now has been either a cover of some jazz classic or a Broadway standard, and then Strange Fruit. Something I could respect and appreciate, but from a distance. But “Blackbird,” especially with the gap between what I’d expected and what I heard, made me shudder like the first time I read the last line of Harlem by Langston Hughes.

For me, it’s a reminder of how much of history is abstracted away into politics instead of lingering on the personal. Even the most fair-minded history usually focuses on activism and revolt — when the dream explodes, in other words — when even horrific events are at least an action, a step towards making things better. We need the cultural side, not just the political and historical side, to give a better idea of the long periods building up to revolution. Simone’s “Blackbird” isn’t weak or defeatist, but so buried under centuries of injustice and a society that refuses to change that there’s little left but despair.

And even though Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” has been one of my favorite songs ever since the first time I’d heard it, I was always ignorant of the context around it. In fact, it wasn’t until seeing the Beatles LOVE show recently that I thought there was any more to it than Paul McCartney writing another beautiful, completely abstract song. That show presented the song (too briefly, and paired with “Yesterday”) as a duet between a black woman and man, as stills from the civil rights movement were projected on screens around the theater. At the time, I thought it was lovely but maybe a little too on-the-nose, and maybe a little bit of revisionist history in its attempts to present the Beatles as if they were at the forefront of every political and cultural movement from WWII through the early 1970s.

Reading up about it afterwards was the first I’d learned that McCartney described the song in honor young black women in the American Civil Rights movement, the Little Rock Nine in particular. (I’ve read some complaints that this is McCartney engaging in some revisionist history of his own, but I don’t know what could possibly be gained by taking his interpretation as anything other than good faith). Today, we can be shocked at seeing photos of white adults publicly screaming at teenagers just trying to go to school, but it’s still easy to abstract it away, as ancient history (it wasn’t that long ago at all!) that was a tick towards social change (still very much in progress, as the bullshit opposition to Black Lives Matter, Critical race theory, and diversity initiatives, are all reminding us). I feel like these two songs called “Blackbird” need each other: one to make it clear how much bigotry is a crushing weight on all of us, and the other to give us hope.

The even better pairing is with Beyoncé’s cover of “Blackbird” from her new album Cowboy Carter. Even after a few paragraphs of White Middle-Aged Guy Tries To Explain Nina Simone and The Little Rock Nine, I’m not going to stumble my way through an explanation of the significance of Beyoncé choosing this song3Besides, there are dozens of online “explainers” already out there, a few of them actually insightful. But on top of being just a perfectly beautiful cover, there’s so much implicit in a mega-star sharing the song with other black women and overlaying it with the gospel and R&B influences that helped make her famous. It feels like McCartney’s version was incomplete, an abstract hope for overcoming adversity, until it was picked up and re-interpreted by someone who’s overcome it.

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    In fact, the rottenness at its core might’ve been a major draw for an unrepentant douchebag looking to buy a few million public admirers.
  • 2
    Based on the YouTube comments, I guess quite a few people first discovered it from the series Lovecraft Country, which I hope gives some people on Bluesky something to complain about.
  • 3
    Besides, there are dozens of online “explainers” already out there, a few of them actually insightful

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Soulmate TK

Two songs about lovers to be named at some point in the future

I’m not back on my Dirty Projectors bullshit; I’m still on it.

This week the prompt is “What is the Time” from the album Lamp Lit Prose. (The live performance from that YouTube link is actually better than the studio version, in my opinion).

That whole album is full of songs about finding new love and coming back from a post-break-up depression. The previous album, Dirty Projectors, is pretty dark, laid bare like a livejournal post and a collection of art-rock diss tracks. The cover is the band’s logo with a shoe print stomping it out. The first track has David Longstreth’s voice artificially pitched down, along with a repeated loop mocking the chorus of “Impregnable Question,” one of their stand-out love songs. It’s not what I’d call subtle.

So I’m fortunate I didn’t fall into fandom until after things had already started going better. “What is the Time” stands out to me because it’s got the lyrics “They say it’s ashes to ashes, passion to passing, and we all will die alone,” but also “The planets align and show me the one I am, I am the one who will love you.” Which I think is pretty spectacular for a love song.

Even if the target of the love song is still to be determined. “What is the time when I can call you by your name?” is a similar sentiment to “I miss you but I haven’t met you yet,” from “I Miss You” by Björk.

One thing I’m realizing by pairing these songs with each other is that I identified a lot more strongly with the sentiment the first time I heard Post, versus the first time I heard Lamp Lit Prose. I still feel my heart flutter at the thought of grand, romantic gestures and declarations of love — I’ve seen too many movies not to. But there’s undoubtedly something solipsistic about it, which I think I didn’t appreciate until I got older.

Declaring “I’ve got so much love to give to the right person” is romantic, sure, but it doesn’t mention the millions of things that make them the right person. That’s where all the real magic happens. There’s a difference between casting for the part of your dream lover, and really falling in love with someone in ways you never could’ve imagined. Otherwise, you’re only ever seeing the other person as a manifestation of yourself, and that’s how you wind up with Solaris.