Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Take Out the Trash

Because I genuinely can’t understand a single word Ariana Grande is singing in “Thank u, next”

“Take Out the Trash” by They Might Be Giants seems appropriate this week, the day before January 20, 2021. TMBG may be my favorite band with one of my doppelgängers in it, and they’ve got a song for just about everything.

I’d thought I was going to use “Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye,” but I discovered to my horror that the title is actually “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” which is an image nobody needs now in this time of happiness and healing. If you want to see a bunch of studio musicians in 1969 failing to lip-synch to it, though, that video’s got you covered.

So instead, here’s the only time you’ll ever see Motley Crue linked on my blog, with their timeless hit “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)”. I looked for a pop song titled “Go Get Fucked (You Worthless Shitstain)” or “I Look Forward To Never Having to Hear Your Name Again (You Treasonous Little Bitch),” but didn’t turn up anything. Even from the Dead Kennedys!

Semi-New Song Sunday: Eerie Gaits

Changing up the mood with some calming and uplifting instrumentals

The other night, I started listening to Holopaw by Eerie Gaits because Apple Music told me to. I was really enjoying the opening track, “What’s Eating You,” and kept waiting for the verse to start, but the words never came.

I can’t say I’m all that mad about it, though. It’s really good at setting a mood, which for me is the sense of being at the end of Act 2 or a late 90s or early 2000s romantic comedy, when the protagonist comes out of a crisis with a heightened sense of resolve, and — either packing up boxes while leaving the office, or turning around to look at the front door of the house for the last time and nod sagely — thinks, Maybe I’ll get through this after all.

That’s even more intense in “The Rainbow Trout and the Wicker Creel,” which adds the feeling of music you’d hear laid on top of a montage of stock footage. Like many of the tracks on Holopaw, it feels like music that’s supposed to supplement something else, either lyrics or images, instead of standing on its own. But I still can’t help but enjoy it.

“Saw You Through the Trees” is my favorite track, because it’s the one that works best as a standalone composition. It doesn’t sound like anything’s missing, but it could also work great as part of the soundtrack for a movie that’s heartwarming and uplifting AF.

“I Love WandaVision”

Reviewing (or really, effusively gushing about) the first two episodes of the new MCU series WandaVision

Two warnings first: 1) This has spoilers for the first two episodes of WandaVision. 2) I’ve barely read any Marvel comics, so if you got here via a search, hoping for easter eggs and hidden comics references and storyline speculation, I’m no help. Luckily for you, there’s a metric shitton of that already online: ScreenCrush has a bunch and tries to speculate on future story developments, while Nerdist keeps it a little bit more to the comics references themselves.

As an only-partially-abashed fan of Disney, Star Wars, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve maybe been a little too much of an apologist for global media conglomerates. I feel like I’ve abandoned any claim to indie cred several times over, when I suggest that not all IP is bad, and that sometimes mega-budgeted corporate productions can result in fantastic experiences.

WandaVision makes me feel a little vindicated, because I’m skeptical you’d ever see something quite like it without ten years of blockbuster movies and a corporate-owned streaming service behind it.

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Kathy, I’m lost with some roly-poly little bat-faced girl

Someone who doesn’t know much about music or poetry attempts to do a deep-dive on why Paul Simon is a genius lyricist

For the past week, I’ve had “America” by Simon & Garfunkel going through my head. Even though it’s one of my favorite songs, it’s too sad for me to listen on repeat play, so I’ve never memorized it. As a result, I’ve been going around singing it to myself, but I’ve kept getting hung up at the same part.

It’s the best line of the song:

"Kathy, I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping.

The reason my brain keeps sticking on it is because the meter’s off. It repeats the same tune and general rhythm from two other parts of the song:

Let us be lovers, we'll marry our fortunes together
Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat

But there’s a syllable missing, which my brain keeps trying to fill up by changing it to “although I knew she was sleeping,” or “even though”, etc. This could be a perfect example of overthinking a piece of art until you’ve drained it of everything that made it sublime, but in this case, it gave me an even greater appreciation for it.

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I Sing the (Car) Body Electric

I’ve been thinking about electric vehicles, and I want the internet to check my work

I’m turning 50 this year,1Whether I want to or not and I had big plans for a year-long banger of a mid-life crisis. Grow a wiry, dingy-graying ponytail. Get more age-inappropriate earrings. Pick up a new, ridiculous hobby. And pointedly: get a convertible.

Not a muscle-car convertible, because I may be a soon-to-be-50-year-old man, but I’ve got the heart of a sophomore sorority pledge. I wanted a convertible VW Beetle. I’m a big fan of the 2011 redesign, and I rented a convertible in Florida for a work trip, and it was a ton of fun. Plus I’ve spent the last 20+ years driving practical, fuel-efficient sedans — two of them hybrids — and I just wanted something dumb, fun, and completely impractical.

But getting an internal combustion engine in 2021 just feels a little too irresponsible. Assuming you’re in a position to do otherwise, of course: a lot of very rich people have spent an awful long time and an awful lot of money making sure that electric vehicles were prohibitively expensive for most people. Even now, they’re eye-wateringly expensive. But when even fuel-efficient cars are putting out tons of emissions per year, it feels gross to keep doing it just for fun.

So I’ve got the extremely privileged “problem” of having to decide what car I want to get when my current lease runs out. Some requirements:

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Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Looking for America

Two songs about wanting America to live up to its promise

“America” is my favorite song by Simon & Garfunkel, but lately I’ve gotten a greater surge of emotion from listening to this cover by First Aid Kit, a duo of Swedish sisters born over twenty years after the song was first recorded. (This live version recorded in Stockholm that got a solo standing ovation from Paul Simon is also wonderful).

Simon’s genius lyrics take a bunch of highly-specific references and generalize them into a perfect expression of the hope and disillusionment of being an American in the late 60s. The cover resonates with me because it shows that the song is even more universal than that: it was never about a specific time or even a specific place, but about an ideal, and the perpetual sadness that comes from seeing that ideal remain unrealized.

Growing up in the Ronald Reagan-led, Newt Gingrich-fueled, jingoistic travesty of America that was the 1980s, I learned to reject American patriotism as the weak-minded arrogance of bigots and fools. So much of it seemed to be manifested in the laser shows at Stone Mountain. There were all the obvious signs of corruption and rot — the show’s climax traced the mountain’s carving of Confederate leaders and animated them riding off to glory, set to a medley of Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson singing “Dixie” and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. As the crowd around us hooted and hollered at the majesty of it all, my (white) friends and I could safely roll our eyes and mock it as gross and misguided but ultimately harmless. Virulent racists were dying out, I told myself, and the casual variety would flee back to their comfortable homes in the suburbs, where they weren’t reaching out to be part of a larger community, but at least they weren’t actively making things worse.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the comically absurd rot — a Confederate War memorial? In 1985?! Ha ha! — was more or less a front for the more pervasive fear and greed that would get more and more entrenched over the next few decades. That was manifested in a song, too: Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” I always misinterpreted it as dumb but harmless, a shallow take on patriotism that was easily dismissed with an eye roll and a wanking gesture. But it’s jarring now to look back and see laid bare just how selfish and transactional it always was. It’s all pride, no responsibility. You’ve got to thank the troops, but only for giving me my freedom and my rights. It’s all my family, not my community. The only suggestion of “stand[ing] up next to you” is to fight to keep what belongs to us.

I can at least understand why people like Greenwood’s version, though: sometimes you do genuinely just want the bombast and pride and being able to shout “America, Fuck Yeah!” Anybody who believes that the whole idea of “the American experiment” is based on just an accident of where you were born — for good or for ill — is missing the entire point, which is that none of this works unless we all to agree believe in it. That requires some faith and some swagger. It’s not a refusal to acknowledge all the layers of disillusionment and injustice; it’s a refusal to drown in them.

There are few more powerful accusations of American denial than Langston Hughes’ poem “America never was America to me.” It was Hughes’ prescient warning from 1935 to any of us who in 2021 are tempted to say “This is not who we are.” As if greed, exploitation, insurrection, corruption, and bigotry were new, foreign things to the USA, and not manifest in every phase of our history. Except that’s not actually the title of the poem, even though I always mis-remember it as such. The actual title is “Let America Be America Again.” It’s not content to just reject the promise of America as a lie; it insists that we work together to make it true.

And because it can’t be said enough: we can’t work together without first rejecting the lie. There’s no unity without justice, and no justice without accountability.

So if you want the simple anthem with waving flags and cheering and middle-aged people on their feet dancing, Neil Diamond’s always had you covered. My parents took me to a Neil Diamond concert when I was a teenager, and I was a capital-C Chode about it because I thought I was too cool for it. Even though it was a huge deal to my mom. I wish I hadn’t been such a chump, because his performance that night (as always) was a show-stopper. And if I’m going to stand up and shout “America!”, I don’t want it to be all about selfishness or fighting to keep what’s mine. I want it to be about welcoming everyone who wants to share in the idea and work together to make something better than any single one of us.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Juanita Stein

New to me: highlights of Juanita Stein’s album “Snapshot,” which feels like a bunch of honest, acoustic songs, plussed up.

“Snapshot” by Juanita Stein is the first of her songs that I heard, and as far as I can tell, it’s a great introduction. The hook of her repeated vocal call/whistle keeps it feeling other-worldly, along with the echoing guitars. But at the same time, it feels honest and not-at-all overproduced; the ethereal flourishes just keep it in your attention and make it feel more substantial than “just” a singer with a guitar.

I can’t think of anything specific in my library that sounds quite like it, and yet it somehow reminds me of an act that I totally would have seen in Athens in the mid-1990s. The closest comparison I could make is possibly a less soporific version of The Sundays, who’d been more influenced by 1970s country-influenced rock?

I’ve listened to more of the album Snapshot, and it feels to me very much like a “slow burn” type of record. Nothing apart from the hoots in the title song stood out as distinctive at first. But then as time went on, I found myself catching bits and pieces of the songs running through my head, and coming back for another listen.

“Hey Mama” is an even stronger example of the just-enough aesthetic: Like the video, it’s spare, simple, and straightforward, but mixes in a bit of mystery to make it stand out in your mind afterward. I especially like the coda in this video, in which she makes it explicit how this is a complex song with an acoustic base.

I Have to Talk About Why I Love Taskmaster

My time starts now.

This week — in between bouts of overwhelming panic and anxiety, of course — I’ve been watching episodes of the British game show-like series “Taskmaster,” and it’s quickly become my new favorite thing.

I’d started to say that I’m late to the party, but that’s not really accurate. It’s more that I’ve checked into the party several times over the past few years, but it’s never seemed like something I’d be that interested in. There are plenty of clips available on YouTube — and if you ever watch any British game shows like “8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown” or “Would I Lie To You?,” YouTube will recommend them to you — but the clips don’t really get across what makes the show special.

The premise: each series assembles a cast of five comedians, actors, or presenters, from the same set of two dozen or so British celebrities that seem to appear on every single TV production in the UK. Over the course of ten episodes, Taskmaster Greg Davies assigns the contestants a series of tasks that they must carry out, under the supervision of his assistant, Little Alex Horne.1Who is the actual creator of the show and all of its tasks. Each episode, they assemble in a studio to watch a video recap of the tasks, and Davies awards points based on how well they succeeded.

Some example tasks: cheer up a depressive traffic warden within 20 minutes, destroy a cake as beautifully as possible, get into an elevator with a disguise kit and change your appearance as much as possible by the time it reaches the bottom floor, or make the best noise.

It’s a clever idea, but what elevates it to genius is the tone and the presentation. The whole thing has the aesthetic of a surreal spy series, reminiscent of The Avengers or The Prisoner. Most of the tasks are carried out in an odd cottage at an undisclosed location in England. Paintings and other artwork of the Taskmaster hang all over the house, sternly observing everything that happens within.

Tasks are assigned in plain white envelopes, sealed with a special Taskmaster wax seal, the instructions typed by Davies in the opening credits of each episode. The music played during the opening and ending credits2And performed by Alex Horne’s band has the feel of an early 60s spy series. The music played during the interstitials is a creepy few bars relying on a stringed instrument I can’t recognize, which somehow makes me think of John le Carré novel covers.

The tasks themselves are fun, like watching an escape room being played by people who are just naturally funny, even when they’re not being particularly clever. Mercifully, it seems that the contestants are either coached not to try to be deliberately funny, but instead just take the task as straightforward and let the humor come naturally and spontaneously.

Or possibly, the awkward bits of comedians trying to be funny are edited out, because the editing on this series is next-level perfect. Full of dry humor, understanding exactly when to cut to a reaction shot from Alex, understanding exactly the right quotes to include and when. The editing and direction seems to derive as much satisfaction in showing a clever success as it does a hilarious failure.

But the tasks themselves are only part of it, and watching just clips of those would be like watching just the movie segments of Mystery Science Theater 3000. You’d get the idea, but all the details that make the series magic would be lost. So much great stuff happens watching the contestants in the studio reacting to the video of their past selves, sometimes recorded months earlier. And of course, trying to justify themselves to the Taskmaster, who doesn’t hesitate to make judgments that vary from “that was shit, wasn’t it?” to “that was genuinely amazing.” Nobody’s taking it that seriously, but unlike other panel shows, they’re all taking it just seriously enough.

It’s that combination of sincerity and silliness that makes the magic of the show. Funny people taking absurd tasks as if they were absolutely straightforward and serious, and then getting together to laugh at themselves for it afterwards. Some of the clip compilations are pretty good, but if you’re like me and have tried watching before but couldn’t get into it, I recommend digging in to a whole episode.

What Do You Want?

(Language warning in the video, in case you’re watching around kids or other sensitive people. But I think it’s warranted).

Corey Forrester, a Georgia comedian who sometimes goes by his alternate identity “The Buttercream Dream” says exactly what I’ve been feeling for the past three days (at least), in one tweet, two minutes, and fourteen seconds.

This country has given you so much. We’ve wasted so much time trying to empathize or even understand you. What exactly is it that you want?

Standing By

Watching the five-year-long car-wreck as my country acts like an increasingly grotesque parody of itself, until its inevitably tragic conclusion

Alexandra Petri usually uses her column in The Washington Post for satire or parody, but her entry on January 7, “We Love You. You’re Very Special. Go Home” takes the only tone possible for anyone reacting to the riot of January 6th: sad, angry, still trying to process the simultaneous absurdity and horror that is the culmination of the last five years of absurdity and horror.

It’s a wonderful essay, because it seems to express the feeling of baffled disgust and disappointment I’ve had daily since November of 2016: none of this can possibly be happening, but everybody else sees it, too, so it must be happening. I particularly love Petri’s description of seeing people vandalizing Speaker Pelosi’s office, scaling the walls of the Capitol building, or walking through the halls waving Confederate flags: “Like most things in the age of Trump, this had all the visible markings of a cruel parody but was the thing itself.”

There was so much focus on the absurd pictures coming from the scene that it was easy to think this was just a bunch of the usual comically incompetent chucklefucks playing dress-up, instead of violent insurrection. In fact, the reprehensible, traitorous, lying shitstains are even now, as the toll sits at five people dead because of a desperately pathetic, complete lie, trying to spin it as a bunch of rowdy good ol’ boys who let their patriotism get them carried away and took it a little bit too far. For a while, they were even trying to spread the bullshit lie about their favorite boogedy-boo-bad-guys, even on the fucking floor of the House of Representatives which their goons had just shat in, and said that it was Antifa’s fault. Five years of lying so brazenly, so shamelessly, so absurdly, that you can’t believe it’s real, and so it’s easy to stop seeing it as real. At least, for those of us who want to hold onto our sanity.

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