This is not going to go the way I think

Part 2 of jumping on the hype train for The Rise of Skywalker, with my list of things I want to see in the final movie.

Like Charlie Brown getting himself psyched to finally kick that football, I’m letting myself get fully immersed in the hype around The Rise of Skywalker. This series has broken my heart many times, but my last post was about the realization that even my least favorite movies in the series have still somehow fit together to have an overarching theme.

Over the past 40 years, there’ve been a lot of attempts to dismiss Star Wars as simplistic nonsense that’s just for children, and just as many if not more attempts to frame it as my generation’s modern mythology. I think the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. If they can stick the landing, I think the Skywalker Saga can be seen as a complete story that’s still a straightforward case of Good vs Evil — since straightforward stories need not be simple-minded — but with a through-line that reminds us we’re responsible for choosing our own path.

So here’s what I want to see happen in the conclusion of the series, based on the previous movies and what we’ve seen in the trailers. I’m less interested in predicting what’s actually going to happen, because I’m bad at that, and because I still want the finale to surprise me.

Answer the right questions about Rey
Hey, remember back in 1980 when Darth Vader said he was Luke Skywalker’s father, and it was such a climactic moment that wowed everyone in the theater? Don’t you wish these movies would spend the next several decades just delivering that same moment over and over again? Well, you’re not alone, since apparently a lot of people believe the most important question to be answered in the finale is who are Rey’s parents? (Even according to Disney’s own marketing). And a lot of these people simultaneously complain that the new trilogy is too much of a rehash of the original movies, so whatever.

We already got an answer to this question in The Last Jedi, and it was the right answer for Rey’s character and for the series as a whole. There’s this pervasive idea that this is one of the things that was introduced in The Force Awakens and unceremoniously thrown out in The Last Jedi, and that it’ll be retconned now that JJ’s taken back over and can say that Kylo Ren was lying, and Rey is actually a secret Kenobi child or Ben Solo’s sister. Or whatever.

But The Force Awakens was already suggesting that the key question isn’t “who are Rey’s parents?” but “who is Rey?” The first line of the first teaser trailer had Maz Kanata’s voice-over asking, “Who are you?” Rey responds “I’m no one.” The new trailer has Rey saying “People keep telling me they know me, but no one does.” (But it also talks about “destiny,” so who knows?)

In my opinion, this is the one thing that will determine how well the new trilogy completes the story of the entire series. It goes all the way back to the Jedi calling Anakin “the chosen one,” through Yoda saying “wars do not make one great,” to Ben Solo spending the last two movies trying to shed his lineage and the role pre-determined for him before he was even born. It has to say that what makes Rey a hero isn’t her parents or even her Force powers, but the choices she makes.

But still, don’t leave that thread hanging
I think the question of who exactly Rey’s parents are is only important to writing a good Wookieepedia entry, instead of writing a good story. But since she’s spent so much time being driven by the question, it’d be satisfying to get some kind of closure on it.

The practical problem has always been that a reveal of any known character would immediately make that character irredeemably awful. Because whoever it was, they abandoned her to a horrible life in a horrible place. The re-introduction of the Emperor is intriguing, because he’s already an irredeemably awful character.

My bet is that she’s the result of a cloning experiment that Palpatine started when the Empire was still active. That fits in with her starting on the planet with all the other wreckage from the Empire. It also fits in with her “vision” in The Last Jedi, of an infinite line of herself stretching forwards and backwards.

It also allows for some version of her (maybe the “dark” version from the trailer?) to exist during the original trilogy. Which I think is intriguing, because it could re-cast one of Yoda’s lines from The Empire Strikes Back. When Obi-Wan says “That boy is our last hope,” and Yoda says, “No, there is another,” maybe he was talking about not Leia like we’ve all assumed since 1980, but Rey.

Stop trying to make Snoke happen
Another pervasive (and unwarranted) complaint is that The Force Awakens set up Supreme Leader Snoke as this sinister mastermind behind all of the machinations of the First Order that would drive the story of the new trilogy, but then The Last Jedi abruptly got rid of him before he could serve his story purpose.

But I say that that was his story purpose: to set up a dynamic just like the one between Vader and Palpatine in the original trilogy, and then have these new characters choosing to break the cycle.

He was never an interesting villain, and he was never going to be anything other than a less inspired stand-in for Palpatine, like Dash Rendar was for Han Solo. It’s much stronger for the villain in the final trilogy to be someone who stretched all the way back to the prequels.

Make “Skywalker” the new “Jedi”
There are a lot of fan theories about what the title The Rise of Skywalker actually means. My favorite is that it no longer refers to a family name, but becomes a title. Either for Rey herself, or for a whole new class of Force-user who has learned to balance both the light and dark sides.

One of the most insightful parts of that “Movies with Mikey” defense of The Last Jedi is pointing out the common link of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and then Luke all experiencing a catastrophic failure and then exiling themselves away from the rest of the galaxy. It implies that the millennia-old Jedi Order was based on a kind of purity test. Luke was the first person (that we’ve seen in the main continuity) to break that cycle by insisting that Anakin could still be redeemed even after falling to the dark side. But then he didn’t give himself the same benefit of the doubt, choosing to punish himself with exile after his failure with Ben.

Asking for a real gray area feels off tone with the Star Wars universe. I still think that Star Wars is about good guys and bad guys, and it stumbles whenever it tries to get into true moral ambiguity, as opposed to Han Solo-style good guys who sometimes make bad decisions. (That’s why I’m not expecting much from a Cassian Andor series, and I think the character of Doctor Aphra from the comics is just intolerably awful). But I think there’s room for the Star Wars series to have a similar lesson to Inside Out: acknowledging that negative emotions are just a part of us, and it’s not only unrealistic but actually unhealthy to try and keep them suppressed all the time.

By that measure, Luke would be not just the last Jedi but the first Skywalker. He recognized that the dark side and the light side can exist in the same person. And both Rey and Kylo Ren have exhibited more Force power than we’ve seen in the series so far; maybe their power comes from not having to block off a part of themselves, like all the Jedi and Sith have had to do in the past. The stories have frequently talked about “balance in the Force;” maybe that balance was always meant to exist within each person.

Remember that C-3P0 and R2-D2 are the constants of the series
One of the best concepts from A New Hope that fell by the wayside as the series went on is the idea of an epic galactic story that’s told from the perspective of two of its “lowliest” characters. They’ve still appeared in all the movies, but they’ve moved from being close to the audience to being secondary or even tertiary characters as the epic galactic story took all the focus.

Based on the trailer, it looks like C-3P0 is going to play some kind of significant role in the new movie. I’m hoping that it goes all the way back to the prequels, and makes use of the shoehorned coincidence that had him built by Darth Vader.

But ever since they introduced BB-8, he’s been the Cousin Oliver of the series, while R2 is treated like Bobby and Cindy Brady. (If Cindy Brady had put herself into a coma waiting for Johnny Bravo to return from his self-imposed exile). I’m hoping that R2 gets brought back into the story, and ideally, that the entire series ends with the two of them just like it started.

Have a bunch of people riding space horses on the outside of a Star Destroyer
Because why not? It’s the last movie, what else are they going to do?

Every Generation Has a Hot Take

Becoming fully immersed in the hype for The Rise of Skywalker by reconsidering my opinion of the earlier movies.

In the interest of increasing my SEO getting hyped up for the release of The Rise of Skywalker this week, I wanted to change things up and write about a movie before it comes out. It’s kind of fun to go back through the blog and see how my opinions have changed over time, so it should be fun to compare what I expect from the movie to what we actually end up getting.

Before I could start making a list of what I want to happen in the final movie, I had to go back and try to piece together the first eight movies into one cohesive story. It’s been surprising to see how much my opinions about the movies have changed. I don’t have any new favorites, but I at least have more respect for what my least favorite movies of the series have contributed to the story as a whole.

Making Peace With The Last Jedi
There’s one pervasive idea about The Last Jedi that I have a hard time believing. It says that Rian Johnson refused to “yes, and…” any of the stuff introduced in The Force Awakens, choosing instead to throw it all out and deliver his own take on Star Wars. For one thing, I have a hard time believing that any one person (apart from Kathleen Kennedy) could have that level of authorship over such a huge movie franchise. But more significantly, I now believe that it does all fit.

This video from “Movies with Mikey” is a strong defense of The Last Jedi (assuming you can tolerate all of its affectations). It’s convinced me that even the parts of the movie that don’t work are still at least thematically consistent. It’s about rejecting a binary view of morality, in a series that has always ostensibly been about good guys vs bad guys.

Since first seeing The Last Jedi, my feelings on it have gone from complete disappointment to begrudging acceptance. It’s frustrating, because the movie has some amazing visuals, the scenes between Rey and Luke are strong, and the fight in Snoke’s throne room is one of the best sequences in the entire series. I always thought that was dragged down by sub-plots that are off tone for Star Wars, or objectively pointless and silly.

The theme of self-determination is pretty obvious, but I think all of it fits together — Poe’s attempt at mutiny, Rose’s promotion from grunt solider to “featured player,” the Canto Bight sequence showing life in the New Republic separate from the First Order and the Resistance — with the larger theme of rejecting the assumptions that have led to the conflict that drives the rest of the series. I still don’t believe that it all works, but I do have a renewed respect for what it did as a sequel in a larger series, which was to leave the story in a more interesting place than it was when it started.

Making Peace With the Prequels
As I’ve been trying to piece together the story so far to figure out how I want it to end, the thing that’s surprised me the most is how many of the story threads were left with at the end of episode eight were introduced all the way back in the prequels. I still don’t think that the prequels are a story that’s told well, but I’m coming around to the idea that it’s a good story.

The story isn’t just about Palpatine manipulating the Jedi and betraying the Old Republic; it’s about how the Jedi and the Old Republic failed catastrophically, and it’s their own actions that made the Empire possible. The Jedi built the army that would become the Empire’s war machine, and centralizing power among themselves is what made it possible to take them all out with one order.

And the romance between Amidala and Anakin was so clumsy and devoid of chemistry that it’s easy to forget how explicitly the movies blame the Jedi for the tragedy that led to Darth Vader. It was their insistence on rules that made Anakin relatively easy to manipulate. Anakin may have straight-up murdered a bunch of children, but don’t forget that they’re children who were taken from their parents to be trained as warriors who would be forbidden from ever falling in love.

I’d thought of The Last Jedi as a rejection of everything Lucas did with the prequels — turning the story from one about a young hero with humble beginnings who goes on to discover his power and save the galaxy, to one that celebrates wealth and power and the assertion that some people are destined from birth to be heroes or villains. But that was probably my bias showing, and the prequels were trying to introduce the idea that the Jedi and the Old Republic were at least partly responsible for their own destruction.

Remember Endor!
As much as I love The Force Awakens (which is completely and unconditionally), it still seemed odd to me that it starts with direct analogues for the Empire and the Rebellion. I don’t agree with the criticism that it’s just a retelling of A New Hope — since these stories are cyclical after all — but it did seem a weird choice for what was supposed to be part seven of a nine-part series.

I think that’s partly because I’ve spent 20 years thinking of Return of the Jedi as the end of the series, instead of just the end of its own trilogy. The victory on Endor implied that the good guys had won, and the galaxy would return to the good old days of the Jedi and the Old Republic. But it should have been obvious that for the story to continue, we would have to learn that returning to the old system wasn’t good enough.

For this to be a continuation of all of the movies, it has to be clear that while the Empire may have been defeated, all the conditions that led to the Empire in the first place were still in place. I do wish that the New Republic had been shown falling as a result of its own dysfunction, instead of just obliterated by Death Star #3, but I guess that’s why we have novels and comic books.

The key thing I want to see in The Rise of Skywalker is a conclusion to the entire story, and an acknowledgement that going back to the status quo isn’t a real victory. It’s kind of surprising that a story that’s been told in fits and stops of varying quality over 40 years ties together at all, but it actually does. I hope they continue and conclude that story, instead of rejecting or retconning the inconvenient parts. (Except for midochlorians, which remain inexcusable).

So that’s the over-arching theme that I hope gets wrapped up in the finale: self-determination, a rejection of dynasties and destinies, and an acknowledgement that there can be more to a hero than just “light side” or “dark side.” In the next post, I’m making a list of specific things I want to see in The Rise of Skywalker.

The Mandalorian: We’ve Seen All This Before

The Mandalorian is both the Star Wars TV series I’ve been wanting for over thirty years, and even better than I imagined.

When I’m watching The Mandalorian, the thought that keeps jumping to my mind is “I can’t believe this is on television.” The part of my psyche that made me start tearing up at the sight of X-Wings flying over water in The Force Awakens, is now being triggered multiple times per episode.

They’re riding speeder bikes on Tatooine! That’s an AT-ST that’s been Mad-Maxed out by bandits! There’s a Dewback dragging a dead body! There’s a whole squad of Boba Fetts with jetpacks having a shootout with bounty hunters! This episode of television is starting out with a dogfight in space! Without a doubt, this series brings back memories of taking all of my Star Wars toys and smashing them together in different combinations and different settings.

For about as long as I can remember loving Star Wars — which is about as long as I can remember loving any piece of popular culture — I’ve been wanting a Star Wars TV series. It implies a galaxy full of new planets, new aliens, new droids, new spaceships, and most of all, new stories. An ongoing TV series has always seemed like the perfect way to take some of the characters, locations, or references that are only glimpsed in the movies, and then spend a long time exploring each in detail.

Except that’s essentially what we’ve been seeing for years, ever since the first Marvel comics: an author or a creative team will choose some corner of the Star Wars galaxy and then start world-building. And the results have been all over the place. Many have been horrible, some have been very good, but at least in my opinion, none have hit exactly the right tone and weight. They’re either just a mash-up of familiar elements that don’t seem to add anything, or they go in the opposite direction and seem so preoccupied with world-building and adding to the lore that they no longer feel like Star Wars.

I remember as a kid being annoyed at a comics storyline that had multiple characters being frozen in Carbonite. It just seemed to be an uninspired rehash of a strong image from the movies, and treating it so casually robbed one of the most dramatic moments in The Empire Strikes Back of its weight. In the years since then, it’s been used even more casually in side stories. In fact, one of my only nerdy gripes about The Mandalorian is how the ship has its own portable carbon freezer, and it’s used as a comic beat. It just retroactively makes a key emotional moment in Empire seem like everyone was getting upset over nothing.

At the other extreme are all the absurd “epic” stories that seem to want to turn Star Wars into pure science fiction or pure fantasy (or in the obvious case of the prequels, all space politics), instead of the balance of fantastic melodramatic space western that the original trilogy got so perfectly right. So we’ve had clones, and creatures that evolved to generate force bubbles, and aliens with hypnotic sexy pheromones, and space vampires, and no doubt countless other examples of nonsense that feels tone deaf.

What’s becoming clear with The Mandalorian isn’t that it expands on the Star Wars universe so much as it pares all of it down to the basics. It’s not at all afraid to let its influences show: it went back to the genres that influenced the original movies — westerns, samurai movies, old Flash Gordon serials — and chose to tell simple stories that call back to those formats.

I think it’s a wise reaction to the prequels, since one of the main problems with those movies is that they were overstuffed with characters and political machinations and galactic conflict and side plots, so that it all became noise that drowned out the story that was supposed to be at its core: the corruption and fall of Anakin Skywalker. There’s so much noise that the characters who became the most memorable (in a positive way, so not Jar-Jar) are the ones with the least back story: for me, it’s Mace Windu and General Grievous. Like Boba Fett in the build-up to The Empire Strikes Back, they “read” instantly.

As far as I can recall, The Mandalorian hasn’t introduced any new species, has only one core conflict (Mando vs the bounty hunting guild), and is only concerned with telling one bit of the galactic back story (the purge of the Mandalorians). I can only think of two new creatures — the mount and the Mudhorn from the second episode — and they’re both used matter-of-factly as utility and obstacle, instead of introduced as “Star Wars lore.”

And crucially, the stories are as familiar as their simple titles suggest. There’s the one where uneasy allies attack a heavily-fortified compound, the one with the truck chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Seven Samurai one, the one about a young hotshot gunslinger, and the one that’s a heist plus Alien. But calling them familiar isn’t a criticism; I think it’s what makes the show work as well as it does. The episodes feel like they simply belong in Star Wars lore without having to justify their existence.

And the pared-down storytelling keeps the noise to a minimum so that the key moments have all the impact they should. Episode 6 was full of fight scenes and dramatic take-downs, but each managed to have weight and feel like a climactic moment. Hell, this is a series that has used the “gun shot rings out, and the target is not who you think” three times already, and I believe it’s landed every time.

I’m reminded yet again of all the complaints about The Force Awakens just being a rehash of the original trilogy, and why I think that’s a complaint that completely misses the point. By this point, we’ve all seen enough Star Wars that most people can recognize that it’s not really science fiction, but a different type of fantasy western that has many of the same trappings as science fiction. But I think a lot of people — including myself, and maybe even including George Lucas — still think of Star Wars as being all about plot.

What The Mandalorian gets so right is the recognition that it’s not about plot and probably never has been. Just like sci-fi technology is used as a vehicle to tell stories about magic, plot is just a vehicle to deliver those moments in which the magic amazes us. When a shot lands in exactly the right place to blow up the space station, or the unstoppable walker is destroyed with some cable or a grenade, or the light saber is pulled from the ground and flies into the hand of the woman who’s destined to wield it.

As new people build on the Star Wars “mythos,” I think the ones who recognize that the appeal isn’t necessarily expanding out the uncharted corners of the galaxy, so much as opening up a galaxy full of beloved toys and smashing them together in ways that we never would’ve imagined.

Frozen II: More and Less of the Same

Frozen II has all the baggage you’d expect from the sequel to a runaway Disney fairytale blockbuster, but insists on having its characters grow and change.

This review has minor spoilers for Frozen II.

I admit I didn’t expect much from Frozen II. I figured that in the worst case, it’d be another direct-to-DVD sequel, bloated to feature length. But even in the best case, I figured that it’d never be quite able to escape that feeling of desperately trying to recapture the one-in-a-lifetime combination of timing and talent that made the original such an unexpectedly charming breakout hit.

But after seeing — and enjoying the hell out of — Frozen II, I realized that not only did it do all of the “next right things” that an inspired sequel should do, it made me retroactively respect the original even more than I already did.

I’d always thought of Frozen as a happy accident: a not-particularly ambitious Disney fairytale that happened to get the right cast, and make one inspired decision to tell a story about a different kind of true love, that made it stand out beyond all the elements that Disney animation just gets right “by default.” But that’s absurdly dismissive of how many decisions must have gone into the movie. Kristen Bell deliberately wanted to introduce a Disney princess who was clumsy and goofy, who’d appeal to girls like she was growing up. And hearing early versions of songs and seeing deleted scenes from earlier versions of the movie make it clear that the movie’s charm wasn’t effortless but instead the result of many iterations.

That’s something that’s clear after only one viewing of Frozen II. You can immediately see that they refused to rely on just what would be expected from a sequel, and instead make a story that’s explicitly about transformation and maturity. Elsa’s character is more open and more impetuous, Anna’s character is less clumsy and more confident, and even Olaf spends a lot of the movie talking about what it means to grow up.

You can kind of even see it in the song that Disney is pushing as the successor to the movie’s big show-stopping musical number. “Let it Go” is an absurdly catchy Broadway-style song designed to show off Idina Menzel’s talents but also make something that a Main Street full of people can sing along with during the Disneyland fireworks. “Into the Unknown” isn’t anywhere near as catchy (I don’t think any of the songs in Frozen II are, really), but it feels a little more sophisticated. It’s got a range that only Menzel and the guy from Panic! at the Disco can hit.

To be clear, the movie does check off all the requirements of a blockbuster sequel. The characters are smashed together for the sake of having them together again, they make frequent callbacks to the first movie and in particular the runaway popularity of “Let it Go,” and they even have an entire scene where Olaf recounts the first movie. If they’d just done that throughout, it would’ve been insufferable. But I noticed three masterful aspects of Frozen II that I believe show the insistence on maturity and change:

Lighting
Even a layman like myself can see that the movie got a rendering upgrade. The characters look mostly the same as far as I can tell, although their hair and clothing is more complex and sophisticated. (Fortunately, there are fewer of those uncannily appealing characters from the first movie, so that unsettling realization of “Wait, am I actually attracted to an animated character?!” is limited to Kristoff). But the more dramatic changes are to the environments.

Water, rocks, leaves, and trees are all beautiful and more painterly, a purposeful change from a movie that was previously covered in snow. But the more advanced lighting is what I noticed. It seemed similar to the jump from lighting in Monsters, Inc to Monsters University: I’d read that Pixar’s big tech advance for that movie was more sophisticated natural lighting, which was crucial to the story that took place over a school year, allowing you to tell instantly what time of year it was based solely on the quality of light and shadow. The jump from Frozen to Frozen II feels like the transition from winter to autumn — again, thematically appropriate as the story goes from a season of cold to a season of change.

Facial Expressions
This was the first detail that jumped out to me. The characters’ facial animation in Frozen II is outstanding, and it’s key to the thing that makes Frozen unique. Much of the movie’s charm comes from having fairytale characters delivering naturalistic, contemporary dialogue. If you don’t nail the tone of that perfectly — and, frankly, if you don’t have actors like Kristen Bell and Josh Gad bringing their personality to the part — then it comes across as insultingly cheesy, the way 9 out of 10 animated movie trailers have a character mugging the camera and saying “Oooh, that’s gotta hurt!”

But the first movie still seemed to me to apply traditional animation techniques to 3D characters. Their faces are still transitioning between fairly broad keyframes. In Frozen II, the style seemed like a combination of performance capture and keyframe animation. I don’t know what the actual process was, but the effect was as if they’d taken motion capture data from the actors and turned each frame into a professionally animated keyframe. Some scenes seemed to have dozens of subtle shifts in expression. The actors more or less vanish, and it’s as if the Frozen characters are actually delivering their lines.

“Lost in the Woods”
This has to be my favorite scene in the movie. I love that they just went for it. They REO Speedwagoned the hell out of this scene, all the while knowing that a significant chunk of the audience was born after 2010.

And most likely, a significant chunk of the team who made the scene was born after 1990. That’s a trend in pop culture that I really like to see; it feels like people are getting better at being able to make fun of things without being completely dismissive of them. Every aspect of “Lost in the Woods” is simultaneously mocking the power ballad and earnestly loving it. That works for Frozen II because of its careful balance in tone — balanced at the tipping point between mockery and melodrama.

Overall, the movie tries — and mostly succeeds — to carry on all of the charm and and goofiness of the original while also refusing to just make an uninspired victory lap that just repeats the first movie. I can’t go so far as to say that this is a story that demanded to be told, but if they had to make a follow-up to such a blockbuster hit — and why wouldn’t they? — I have to respect the integrity that went into this one. It insists on doing something new, it forgoes the over-simple villain of the first movie in favor of more sophisticated obstacles, it downplays the conventional fairytale story in favor of one that’s about respecting people instead of seeing them as “other,” and it emphasizes that change isn’t just inevitable, but positive.

Music to Remember By, Part 4: Go Through All This Before You Wake Up

The final part of my playlist, which is mostly about feeling a connection to other people through popular music.

With the goal of updating my blog every day, I’m spending this week compiling a playlist of songs that were supposed to help me sleep but instead just brought back vivid memories of significant times hearing them. In part three, I wrote about “Starbucks Music” and what life was like back when we had to wonder what song was playing.

Hyper-Ballad, Björk
This isn’t my favorite song from Post, but that’s mostly because Post is such a brilliant album it’s almost impossible to pick a single favorite song. (Except I can, and it’s “Isobel”). But this song brings back two strong and related memories, fifteen years apart.

The first is listening to Post non-stop for what seemed like months, as I was driving to my job at a game studio in Emeryville. I remember really paying attention to “Hyper-ballad” the first time, because it stood out as the most stereotypically Björk song on the album — the most remarkable thing about her genius is how she maintained her unique weirdness but was still able to make it commercial. She’s successful without ever feeling like a sell out, and a song about imagining throwing herself off a cliff is a great example of that.

The second is just last year. YouTube recommended a video of someone who’s not Björk doing a cover of “Hyper-ballad.” I thought it was a one-off oddity, but after watching it, it kept recommending more covers. The song seemed so unique and personal to one specific artist, and I remembered being obsessed with Post and feeling like I’d somehow formed a unique connection to it. Seeing all these covers of this weird song — and remembering that it was a hugely popular album — made me feel connected to all these other fans who loved the music and had probably gone through the exact same process of discovery.

Gypsy, Fleetwood Mac
My memory of this song is likely the same as anyone alive in 1982: I remember the video. It was pretty epic for the time, and it played constantly. Specifically, I remember the image of Stevie Nicks running into the rain singing, and I thought she must be the most beautiful person in the word.

Lovesong of the Buzzard, Iron & Wine
I already wrote about having a near-out-of-body experience listening to The Shepherd’s Dog on a plane, but the specific thing that makes the album so brilliant is the production, which has the songs drift in and out of each other with weird audio flourishes that seem like the transitions in a dream. “Lovesong of the Buzzard” is probably the most straightforward and pleasant song of the record, and it immediately follows the sinister “White Tooth Man,” and transitions into the more ethereal “Carousel.” The effect is like the last hypnagogic shock of wakefulness and then gradually falling into a deep dream.

The Sea, Morcheeba
I first heard about Morcheeba right before I took my first trip (as an adult) to London. I’m too ignorant of music to even know how to classify them (house music?) but it must’ve been a popular genre at the time, because from the moment I got on the Virgin Atlantic flight to the moment I left London, I heard it constantly. It was like Morcheeba was following me through England, just out of my peripheral vision.

My stronger memory is a comically petty one: it was another trip to Disneyland with my friends and one of my friend’s parents. We were driving back from Anaheim at night, and I’d put on a playlist I’d made called “Fire and Rain.” The last half had all the water-related songs I could think of, and it ended on “The Sea.” When it was over, my friend’s mom said, “That was really nice,” and I felt inexplicably proud.

I Wish I Was the Moon, Neko Case
I may be misremembering this one, and it didn’t actually happen but I instead read about it in an interview, but I like the memory enough not to care. It was seeing Neko Case in concert for The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight…. in San Francisco. She introduced “I Wish I Was the Moon” by saying (paraphrased): “This was a tender love song I wrote for my dad, and now it’s the theme to vampire fucking.” I already had a crush on Neko Case for her music, but I think that was the moment that cemented my respect for her as one of the most effortlessly funny people I’ve seen.

Dirty Back Road, The B-52’s
This song reminds me of my first year in Athens, when I saw The B-52’s in concert at UGA for Cosmic Thing and instantly became a huge fan. This song in particular reminds me of weekends driving from Athens to my job in Gwinnett County (coincidentally, at the mall that was used for season 3 of Stranger Things). I would head down the Atlanta Highway (the one from “Love Shack”) in my beat-up old VW Bug, and even though it was kind of a major artery, most of it was a stretch of two-lane road through the woods. It wasn’t particularly reckless driving, and I definitely wasn’t in a sportscar, but that song — especially the extended sound of crickets at the end — perfectly reminds me of driving on a highway through Georgia at night surrounded by nothing but darkness and trees.

Into the Mystic, Van Morrison
This always reminds me of the first time I heard the song, which wasn’t Van Morrison’s original but a cover by Poi Dog Pondering. (Which I don’t have a decent recording of). I believe that as the years went on, Frank Orrall would frequently do a cover of “Sweet Thing” in the encore of a Poi Dog show, but for this specific memory, he was doing “Into the Mystic.” This was the second time I’d seen them at the Georgia Theater, promoting their album Volo Volo. While the first concert had been a complete surprise — and remains one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to — I’d become a big fan since then, getting as much of their music as I could find and listening to it obsessively. So I’d spent the entire show singing along with songs I already knew by heart. When he got to “Into the Mystic,” I couldn’t sing along anymore. I had never heard it before, but it seemed as if everyone else had. So I just stood there and listened as the rest of the crowd sang along.

Usually, that kind of thing would make me feel isolated, but here it was different. It made me realize that there was an entire world of beautiful music I hadn’t heard yet, and I could spend the rest of my life discovering it.

That’s more than enough of that. If you’ve somehow enjoyed reading these self-indulgent posts, please let me know, and I can make it an ongoing thing. Probably with just one or two songs at a time. And if not, then the next time I need to sleep on a long plane flight, I’ll just use Advil PM and a boring book.

Music to Remember By, Part 3: Our Dark Shazamless Days

My playlist of memories continues with Starbucks Music and hazy recollections of the 1970s.

With the goal of updating my blog every day, I’m spending this week compiling a playlist of songs that were supposed to help me sleep but instead just brought back vivid memories of significant times hearing them. In part two, I wrote about false memories, driving, and being homesick.

Shoot the Moon, Norah Jones
I still say Come Away With Me is a great album, one of my top 20 even if not my to 10. (If you don’t believe me, listen to the tracks “Seven Years” and “Nightingale”). I think the reason I tend to forget that it’s so good is that I’ve unfairly lumped it in with “Starbucks Music,” because I so often heard “Don’t Know Why” playing in coffee shops.

My strongest memory of “Shoot the Moon” was hearing it in a Borders bookstore in Marin County in 2002 and making peace with being in my 30s. I recognized the song and realized I really liked it. I’d been having a lot of anxiety around turning 30 the previous year. All of my optimism about getting to work for LucasArts had been more or less crushed by the reality of working for LucasArts, and by that point, my follow-up job had either ended or was clearly on the way to its end. My career hadn’t ended up where I wanted it to be, and I was worried that I hadn’t accomplished all the things I’d wanted to accomplish by the time I turned 30. But being in a chain bookstore in Marin County — in many ways the Heart of Whiteness — and hearing a relaxing jazz-infused contemporary pop song, and realizing that I recognized it and liked it: that was somehow calming. I just let all the suburban middle-class whiteness wash over me and take me into its bland but loving embrace.

If the Stars Were Mine, Melody Gardot
This, on the other hand, is the darker side of “Starbucks Music.” I don’t believe in “guilty pleasures” anymore — what’s the point in feeling guilty for liking something? — but I’ve got to say this is a song I’m not 100% happy to have in my music library.

Unlike anything on Come Away With Me, this feels like a song that was specifically created to one day appear on a Starbucks compilation album. I think the stereotypes of Starbucks and PSL basic bitches is marketing nonsense, but this feels like something trying to capitalize on that as if it were a real thing. It doesn’t seem like a genuine piece of music that happened to connect with a certain audience, but crassly designed to hit a very specific demographic of white person.

Still, the reason I keep it is because it conjures such a perfect memory. I was on one of the once-in-a-lifetime jobs I was absurdly fortunate to get with Imagineering multiple times. I was at the Grand Floridian at Walt Disney World, standing on the porch outside Narcoossee’s restaurant, and the weather was perfect and the day was perfect. For the first time, it occurred to me that I could uses Shazam to identify the music playing around the resorts, and I’d end up with a playlist that would always take me back there. (It had actually never occurred to me that Disney licensed the music that played around the resorts instead of recording it specifically for them).

Hearing this song reminds me of one of the only times that I was having the best time of my life and realized it in the moment, instead of after it was already over.

Lady Pilot, Neko Case
This reminds me of driving back from Disneyland on I-5 with my friends. They were playing all Neko Case albums, and it was the first I’d heard any of her music. (And known it — I’d never made the connection she sang my favorite New Pornographers songs). At the time, I thought her voice was phenomenal, but also kind of exhausting — her earlier country-heavy records are pretty spare, and to the uninitiated can seem a little overwhelming. I liked it, but also I was tired and grouchy and felt like I’d spent an hour listening to a woman with a uniquely powerful voice yelling about Tacoma and Deeeeeeeeep Red Bells.

Later, I was listening to Blacklisted and during “Lady Pilot,” everything clicked for me. It was suddenly the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. And it’s still up there with “Dirty Knife” and “This Tornado Loves You” as my favorite Neko Case songs. My crush started there.

(And because I feel like this sounds a little harsh and undermines my huge fandom of Neko Case: if you watch her live singing her own material, she frequently does that thing where she starts belting out a note away from the microphone and then sweeps across it. So she must be well aware her voice is too powerful to take at full blast).

We’ve Only Just Begun, Carpenters
This reminds me of being a little kid in the seventies. I don’t really have any single specific memory, more a montage of being a weird little kid who adored the Carpenters. In my mind, it’s shot like one the Disney live-action movies from the 70s, all fuzzy and amber and set to “On Top of the World” and “Close to You.” My mother used to like to tell a story about me being around 4 years old and sitting on a stool to perform “Sing” with a little microphone, and I crossed my legs and leaned toward the camera like I’d seen singers do on television. Like I said: kind of a weird kid, and that plus the fact that I loved ABBA intensely should’ve been a sign that something was up with me. Just sayin’.

I picked “We’ve Only Just Begun” because I think it’s the most 1970s of the Carpenters songs I loved in the 70s. I only found out within the past few years that Richard Carpenter got the tune from a jingle for a bank, which seems obscenely crass and commercial now, but fit right in with the gestalt of the 70s. It was a different time.

Day After Day, Badfinger
I remember finding out about this song. I felt like it was just part of the background music of the 1970s, kind of like how I know all the words to “Dust in the Wind” despite never owning a Kansas album. Whenever “Day After Day” would come on, I would think how much I liked it, but then forget about it until the next time. I never knew the title or the artist. In fact, because the singer sounds a lot like Paul McCartney to me — and, I would later find out, it was produced by George Harrison, and the band was “mentored” by the Beatles — I always assumed that it was a slightly-lesser-known Beatles song from an album I just hadn’t bought yet.

Years later, I heard the song playing while I was out somewhere — I don’t remember the details, but I do remember the realization that I was living in the future and could just use Shazam to identify the song once and for all. One of the minor mysteries of my teen years was resolved, and gone forever were the days when we had to spend even a moment wondering about pop culture trivia.

Now that I think of it, it’s a companion piece to “Sleeping Satellite” by Tasmin Archer, which I wondered about throughout the early 90s. Once I got identify it on Shazam and instantly get it on Napster (ask your parents), it drained a little bit of the mystery from the universe.

Next time: Our not-particularly shocking, easy-listening finale! Featuring Fleetwood Mac, Morcheeba, and Björk!

One Thing I Love About Knives Out

Knives Out is a movie that constantly wants to have it both ways, and it somehow pulls it off flawlessly. (Spoilers within)

There’s a lot of things I love about Knives Out: its clever structure, its cast full of perfect performances, its ability to perfectly nail the tone throughout, its unapologetic assertion of morality. I thought it was very near flawless, and it was a great reminder of how exhilarating it can be to see a movie that wasn’t part of a blockbuster franchise.

But one of the best things is that it kept me surprised throughout, so I’d consider anything outside of the trailers to be a spoiler for the movie. Please don’t read this (or any other reviews for that matter) until after you’ve seen Knives Out.

The one aspect of Knives Out that I’m going to focus on is the way that it wants to have it all both ways, and it somehow manages to pull it off. Based on the trailer, I thought I knew exactly what kind of movie it was going to be, and I was completely on board.

As it turned out, it was that kind of movie, but it also kept surprising me by changing direction. It’s very funny, but without sacrificing its tension or its emotion. The set direction and the opening shot suggest an old-fashioned period 1970s period piece set in a gothic mansion, but a lot of its tension comes from cell phones and topical references. Many of its characterizations are campy and almost over the top, but it also generates real empathy with the characters. It looks like a locked-room whodunnit, but it also has a car chase (even if it’s “the stupidest car chase”).

And one of the most clever and surprising aspects to me: it wants to be both a traditional whodunnit and a Columbo-style whodunnit that reveals the murderer near the beginning of the story. And they both work!

I would’ve assumed that the two types of story were mutually exclusive. There was a pretty great thriller (at least, great in my memory of 1987) called No Way Out that got its tension from having its protagonist trying to manipulate an investigation that would inevitably reveal him to be the murderer. Knives Out weaves that story in and out of a traditional murder mystery, and it’s fascinating to go back and look at how it manages to pull that off.

The beginning of the movie is brilliantly constructed. It has to set up the plot, introduce the characters, establish the tone as funny-but-not-flippant, establish the characters as extreme but not just caricatures, and put the audience in the role of observers who are given more information than any of the characters and will have to piece it all together. All while keeping things moving and preventing the audience from feeling overwhelmed.

The first clever twist is that the audience is set up not to identify with the eccentric detective, but with one of the least likely suspects. The second is the brilliant gimmick of having a protagonist who’s physically incapable of lying.

As a result, it takes a genre that relies on impassive detachment — you assume that everyone’s lying and treat the characters as pieces of a puzzle that the storyteller has laid out in front of you — and turns it into one in which you become personally invested in the main character and the murder victim. Meanwhile, the movie and the characters themselves are all self-aware to know that they’re in a whodunnit, so the analytical part of your brain can keep spinning, putting the clues together and trying to predict what comes next.

By the end of the movie, I realized that while I’d been patting myself on the back for being so clever at several points in the movie, it was at least a step ahead of me, planting red herrings. Not for the mystery so much as the structure of the movie itself. Throughout, I had figured out only as much as the movie wanted me to figure out. I was able to predict just far enough ahead so that I was in sync in the story as all the pieces fell into place.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing the special features, commentary, and deleted scenes for this movie, because I’d love to see how it was constructed and I wonder if there were more that was cut out. For instance, one of my minor complaints about it was that Riki Lindhome’s character felt like she was going to play a larger role that never really developed. Similarly, LaKeith Stanfield’s character had some great moments but felt underdeveloped even as an Inspector Lastrade stand-in; was there more at one point, or was this another misdirection?

Regardless, I’m a lot less interested in seeing Rian Johnson do a trilogy of Star Wars movies, and a lot more interested in seeing more of the ongoing Benoit Blanc series. The Maybe B. Blanc Mysteries? As much as I said this was a great self-contained film and a nice break from franchise-driven blockbusters, I can’t help wanting to see more of this from Daniel Craig and Rian Johnson instead of 007 and Star Wars. It has it both ways in so many other respects, so why can’t it be both an independent film and a franchise?

Music to Remember By, Part 2: Driving and Forgetting

Day 2 of the playlist brings repressed memories, homesickness, lots of driving, and feeling slightly more connected to the Japanese people

With the goal of updating my blog every day, I’m spending this week compiling a playlist of songs that were supposed to help me sleep but instead just brought back vivid memories of significant times hearing them. In part one, I wrote about the album and the airline trip that inspired the whole thing.

Aguas de Marco, Cibo Matto
If the theme is “memory,” then this was a case of repressed memory, missing time, and possible abduction by Cibo Matto-loving aliens. Recently we were watching a documentary that featured Antonio Carlos Jobim’s son performing “Aguas de Marco,” and it made me want to listen to the well-known original with Jobim and Elis Regina.

Except that wasn’t the original version, or at least it wasn’t what I remembered as the original. After listening to every cover I could find on YouTube, I stumbled onto the one by Cibo Matto, which stuck in my mind as the “real” one. I also suddenly remembered a brief period where I was obsessed with Cibo Matto, and had completely forgotten about it. Like when Obi-Wan says he couldn’t remember ever owning a droid, but then you see him going on all these adventures with R2-D2, except even less exciting and I somehow knew all the lyrics to “Spoon” without any memory of ever hearing it.

I Hear the Bells, Mike Doughty
This is kind of cheating for the rules of the playlist, since I can’t remember exactly when it was or where I was headed. Regardless, I have a vivid memory of being in my car, driving on the most boring stretch of 580 at night, nothing visible out the windows except highway and hills. It was the first time I’d listened to Haughty Melodic loud, without any distractions (and finally rid of any preconceptions that it’d be just like another Soul Coughing album). The music was swelling, I was singing at the top of my lungs, and I would’ve sworn that at any second the car would take flight and launch off the freeway into the darkness.

You Are the Everything/Untitled, REM
I got Green while I was in my freshman year of college in Manhattan, just because “Stand” was popular on MTV at the time. I’m not sure that I’m cut out to live in New York now, and I know for a fact that I wasn’t when I was 17. I remember sitting in my dorm room one night when I was feeling particularly homesick, and when “You Are the Everything” started with its sounds of crickets and frogs at night, it occurred to me that it had been a month since I’d actually seen a tree outside of a planter. That album became one of my links back home to Georgia whenever I started to regret trying so hard to escape Georgia in the first place. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d end up leaving Manhattan to go to school in Athens, Georgia, instead, where I soon got sick of hearing REM constantly.

Which reminded me of the untitled bonus track from Green, which conjures a vivid memory of annoying the hell out of my roommates. We had downstairs neighbors in the dorm who listened to “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction super loud at least four times a day, which in retrospect was lucky for me, since they bore the brunt of all the annoyance that would’ve been directed at me for listening to Green almost as often. The opening drum beat from that untitled song is now combined with the sound of my Mac Plus ejecting a floppy disk as my memory of my year-long audio assault on the poor people who lived with me.

Sweet Thursday, Pizzicato Five
I was taking beginning Japanese language classes in Japantown over the weekends, and I’d always hit the bookstore afterwards to pick up an import CD from Pizzicato Five, Fantastic Plastic Machine, or game and anime soundtrack. I was riding back to Marin from San Francisco on 101, listening to The Sound of Music by Pizzicato Five, and I was enjoying it so much that I drove past my exit and figured I’d keep going north until the album ended. I thought “Sweet Thursday” was beautiful (and still do), but this day in particular was after a class where we’d gone over the days of the week. The phrase “mokuyoubi no asa” (Thursday morning) jumped out at me, because it was the first time I’d heard it as the word for “wood” plus one of the words for “day.” I’d spent all my time learning vocabulary through arbitrary memorization, and it had never occurred to me that the Japanese names for the days of the week had a system just like English, with “sun” + “day,” “moon” + “day,” “Odin’s” + “day”, etc. It suddenly felt like the language would be more accessible and fun if I looked for patterns and similarities instead of thinking of it as something completely foreign and difficult.

Sweet Thing, Van Morrison
For some reason, the two best Van Morrison songs (“Sweet Thing” and “Into the Mystic”) weren’t on his best of collection from 1990. So I heard multiple covers of the song before I heard the original. One was from an album by The Waterboys, and the other was during a live show by the band Poi Dog Pondering. (The first two Poi Dog Pondering concerts I saw at the Georgia Theater in Athens are still the best concerts I have ever been to). One day after classes, I went to one of the used music stores in Athens and finally bought a copy of Astral Weeks. I listened to it on the drive home but didn’t even make it to the end of Baxter Street before I was entranced by it — a flowery word, but I don’t know how to describe it. It really wasn’t like any album I’d ever heard before. I drove around the campus and then around the town to give enough time for the tape to finish, then I rewound it and started it over again.

“And I shall raise my hand into the nighttime sky and count the stars that’s shining in your eye” is still one of the most romantic lines from any song I’ve ever heard.

Next time: Starbucks music, both good and bad! My eternal and ever-evolving crush on Neko Case! And I can’t stress enough how weird a kid I was in the 1970s! You don’t want to miss this one!

Music to Remember By, a Weeklong Playlist

Compiling a playlist that didn’t help me sleep, but did start me on a weird ride though my teens and twenties.

My friend is participating in something called “Holidailies” this December, and while I definitely can’t post every day, I like the idea of taking part informally and writing as often as I can. For as long as this blog has existed, I’ve been fighting against my natural tendency to write 5000-or-more-word rambling essays that even I get lost in. Writing shorter stuff more often seems like a good counter to that, a good way to be less dependent on Facebook, and a refreshing callback to the early 2000s. And as long as we’re doing flashbacks to the early days of blogging, why not start with an unsolicited playlist?

Last night I was on a very late and delayed cross-country flight back home, so I tried to compile a playlist that would help me sleep. My goal was to get a repeat of my experience with The Shepherd’s Dog by Iron & Wine a few years ago.

For most of my life, I’ve been okay with flying, but there was a period of a couple of years where I would get a severe, morbid anxiety every time I had to get on a plane. Final Destination-style visions of fires, explosions, crashing into buildings, wings shearing off, plunging into the ocean — all kinds of nightmare visions that wouldn’t go away unless I just sat there with my eyes tightly shut and hyperventilated for a couple of hours. At the start of one of these flights, I was feeling too exhausted to panic, so I just closed my eyes and put on some music. It was the first time I listened to The Shepherd’s Dog all the way through, and it was one of the most profoundly, memorably relaxing experiences of my life.

At the risk of sounding like a Sunday School camp counselor advocating a “natural high,” it was better than any experience I’ve had with marijuana, and was even more relaxing than the first time I was prescribed Vicodin. It felt like my spirit floated out of my body, guided by a similarly-floating big-bearded man whispering in my ear but in a way that was neither creepy nor sexual, to a wide stretch of imaginary North Georgia countryside in the summer filled with trees with swings and cicadas and creeks running underneath old wooden train bridges.

As the last song faded out, there was a peaceful silence for a minute and I must’ve fallen asleep, because both the flight and my anxiety were almost over. I won’t go so far as to say that album “cured” me, but the vivid memory of that feeling of relaxation is something I’ve been able to go back to ever since.

Last night’s attempts to “recapture the magic” didn’t work, but they did have another oddly profound effect: conjuring up unexpectedly vivid sense memories of the most significant time I heard each song. It’s been a while since I’ve really paid attention to the music I was listening to, instead of treating it just as background music, so it was surprising to keep coming up with such vivid and specific associations with each one. The first was

The Rain Song, Led Zeppelin
In high school, I got all of the Led Zeppelin albums on vinyl, even though cassettes were what all the cool people were using. All the Zeppelin album covers were weird and varied and maybe even thrillingly blasphemous to a sheltered Pentecostal kid, so it was worth it to get the vinyl and record it to a tape on my friend’s turntable. That had the added benefit of letting me make hand-drawn art for the tape sleeve that mimicked the album.

Hearing “The Rain Song” makes me remember trying to copy the typefaces on Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti, and then putting the tape in my Walkman and lying on my bed in the dark, letting this song wash over me over and over again. I can guarantee you that during the part that starts I felt the coldness of my winter, I would launch into a fit of air drums at least as embarrassingly, earnestly clumsy as the cheesiest caricature of a dorky 1980s teen that you’ve ever seen on TV or movies. This was also the first time I can remember feeling that floating-out-of-your-body transcendence that listening to great music can evoke.

Dreams, Beck
This song is terrible at making me drowsy but does a tremendous job of conjuring up a strong memory. This one is recent: I’d just been laid off from eero, and I was driving alone down to Anaheim for a “screw it, I’m unemployed” trip to Disneyland. As I got through the Grapevine and started going through Burbank, the album Torches by Foster the People came on, followed by Colors by Beck. Hearing those two albums back-to-back, in a car, on the I-5 through downtown LA, felt as much the platonic ideal of Los Angeles as anything in Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” video. It was like a sucking on a pure bullion cube of Los Angelesness. I remember the opening hook for “Dreams” came on as I was passing the Citadel outlets in Commerce, and feeling a sense of freedom and belonging that I never felt in southern California. I thought I could totally get used to living in southern California, after years of thinking of LA as nothing more than an obstacle between me and Disneyland.

Next time: suppressed memories of Cibo Matto! Driving in the darkness with Mike Doughty! Annoying my roommates with non-stop Green! A bilingual breakthrough in San Rafael! Don’t miss it!

E Pluribus Sputum

A begrudging defense of US democracy and learning to move forward in unity with a bunch of bigoted morons.

If I were editing together a sizzle reel for the highlights of Western Democracy, I don’t think I’d be including much from the 21st century. Seeing the US elect a black President was a highlight — especially for the side benefit of seeing bigots in sputtering, baffled rage like the kids in the rich camp at the end of an 80s teen movie. But apart from that, there’s been enough crushing disappointment in my fellow citizens that I’ve often started to wonder whether democracy was a good idea in the first place.

For one example: there was that wave of Web 2.0 evangelists promising to democratize the internet. It was sold to us as a world without gatekeepers, in which everyone has a voice. What it became instead was a world where millionaires handed out super-powerful microphones to any asshole who’d increase “engagement” enough to bump up the artificial value of their publishing platform’s IPO.

Another: all the bans against marriage equality across the US and the rest of the world, in which a bunch of bigots spent decades arguing that it was fair and just to put the rights of a minority up for a popular vote. (Don’t forget: the aforementioned first black President, who’s now frequently championed as if he were some kind of hero of LGBT rights, asserted that he was opposed to marriage equality because of his religion, but believed it should be left to the states to decide. Even though as a constitutional scholar and the child of interracial parents, he should’ve known better).

Next: the citizens of the UK decided to make the Magna Carta seem like a bad idea, by taking the silly, lighthearted, and trivially irreverent idea of Boaty McBoatface and applying it to racist, global-economy-threatening, backwards isolationism.

And then it culminated in November 2016. All of us who’d been raised learning about both the importance of checks and balances in government and the necessity of being a good and honest person in society got to watch tens of millions of people vote for one of the worst people to be President of the United States. Not just worst people for the role of President. Worst people in the United States. And then instead of saying “oh my God what have I done?!” they proudly held up their lovingly selected pile of dogshit and said “Ha ha, suck it, liberals!”

In the time since the election, the initial shock has subsided, and the rest of us have gone from asking ourselves “How could this happen?” to “Where are we supposed to go from here?” Our government and all the other interconnected systems that make our society work are based on the fundamental assumption that functioning adults will show the barest minimum level of civic responsibility. If adults can be so consumed with selfishness and apathy that they’d take their one responsibility as citizens and say “well, screw it, why not vote for the corrupt, incompetent clown?” then what’s the point of any of it?

That’s the mindset I’ve been in for a couple of years now. But recently I’ve grown to appreciate the value of democracy again, and I’ve got Mark Zuckerberg to thank for that.

Last month, a “leaked” recording of an open meeting at Facebook revealed Zuckerberg speaking out against Elizabeth Warren’s pledge to break up anti-competitive tech giants. In it, he delivered his own pledge to “go to the mat” fighting against it. Zuckerberg has had at least a couple of private meetings with Trump since then.

It’s tough to describe the kind of despair I felt after hearing that. I was already feeling the kind of depressive anxiety that comes from being an American with an internet connection in 2019, but this added a new level of hopelessness. For the first time in my lifetime, we have the potential to have a genuinely progressive Democrat in the office of President. It could mean a rejection not just of Reagan-era policy, but of the pervasive white male superiority that’s desperately and cravenly clawing to maintain its hold over the country. And it could all be ruined by some weird asshole billionaire just for the sake of maintaining his own source of immense, unnecessary wealth.

Except for this: the same democracy that lets some racist vote for a sleazy grifter for President of the United States is what makes Mark Zuckerberg’s vote worth exactly the same as mine.

Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Jack Dorsey, and Peter Thiel combined all have the same voting power as the passengers of a fully-loaded Prius plug-in hybrid with a “Coexist” bumper sticker. Every single asshole in the Trump administration combined with every Republican senator hypocritically supporting them, is no more or less powerful in a popular vote than even the number of black supporters at a Pete Buttigieg rally.

Since November of 2016, we’ve been deluged with thinkpieces imploring us to get inside the mind of the Trump voter, to acknowledge and renounce our coastal elitist bubbles and connect with the heartland that forms Trump’s base, and even to upend our lives and move to “red states” to “turn them blue” again. There’s been so much of this talk, you might even be fooled into thinking that Trump won the election.

He didn’t, of course. He lost the popular vote. By a lot. Even with the proven Republican gerrymandering and proven Republican attempts at voter suppression and proven Russian interference in the election. He lost by almost 3 million votes, which means that Trump lost the popular vote by almost as much as the entire population of the United States when the electoral college was instituted.

I mention the electoral college because the Republicans only “won” because they manipulated an inherently un-democratic system to appoint their candidate President. Ironically, it was a system included as a concession to states panicked about a too-strong federal government that would ignore the representative branches, ignore states rights, and govern by fiat. In other words: Trump is in office because the GOP manipulated a system that was intended specifically to keep people like Trump from ever being in office.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of chuckleheads insisting that focusing on the popular vote, or complaining about the electoral college, are all just the bitter grousing of impotent liberals. But that’s one of the biggest lies of all. It suggests that the political theater that the media focuses on is the most important part, and that it’s all a game of strategic machinations and counter-machinations where the end goal is to “win,” not to govern fairly and justly.

And more simply: it suggests that Trump has the mandate of the people, which is just objectively false. Even if you ignore the popular vote. Even if you accept the ludicrous idea that the 85% of the US population living in urban areas is somehow less American than those in rural areas. Even if you accept Trump’s hilariously bullshit and deliberately misleading “Impeach this” map. Even if you accept the more accurate “Land doesn’t vote, people do.” visualization that still shows areas as uniformly either red or blue.

But it’s important to remember that Clinton didn’t “win,” either. As embarrassing as it is for Trump that he still lost the popular vote even with so many people keeping their thumb on the scales for his benefit, it should be embarrassing to Clinton that she didn’t win by the largest landslide in American history. Trump was repeatedly caught on video and audio saying racist and misogynist things, and was recorded at a rally openly mocking a disabled person. If over 60 million people can see and hear all of that and still not want to vote for you, you don’t have the mandate, either.

The real winner of November 2016 was apathy. The idea that either the system was working as intended and was just inherently unfair, or that the system was irreparably broken and not worth even trying to fix. For eight years, there were a lot of people heavily invested in telling us that having a left-of-center black President was radical. For the past three years, there’ve been a lot of people heavily invested in telling us that the nation is irreparably divided in ways that it hasn’t been since the Civil War.

I’m skeptical.

Although I’m backing Elizabeth Warren for as long as possible, it was Pete Buttigieg who knocked me out of my sense of despair and convinced me that there was a way out of the current mess. His most insightful observation is that this is the end of the Reagan era of politics, and good riddance. It’s been in effect for most of my lifetime, so I’d started to think that it was just the way America worked, instead of a deliberately constructed system of media manipulated and reinforced complacency that indicts Obama and the Clintons almost as much as it does the Bushes and Reagan.

Buttigieg’s other most valuable insight is that people knew full well who they were voting for. A lot of people — including me — who were trying to make sense of the 2016 election spent at least a year afterward getting flustered at news stories and showing them angrily to suspected Trump supporters, asking “Do you see what you’re responsible for? Can you understand what you did?!” As if they’d somehow just missed the news. It’s a lot like trying to punish a dog by rubbing its nose in its mess, as if a dog, of all creatures, wasn’t already aware of what shit smells like.

The reality, I believe, is that individual people are as “purple” as voting districts are. Maybe I’ve just been extraordinarily lucky, but I’ve encountered very few people who were actually gung-ho pro-Trump. They were well aware of the thousands of things that make him unfit for the Presidency, but they believed — incorrectly — that either it didn’t matter or that there were other issues that were more important.

I can’t stress enough how wrong that was. No matter how much people might want to insist that we don’t know what’s in their hearts, that people contain multitudes, that politics requires compromise, etc. ad nauseam, the fact remains that there was an objectively wrong choice in November 2016, and they made it. They want to suggest that there’s a moral equivalent between my voting for Clinton despite having issues with some of her opinions on foreign policy, and their voting for Trump despite his bragging about sexual assault and holding rallies promising to build a wall to keep out brown people. Nice try, but no.

But at least it’s a start. To think that around half of the people in the country who cared enough to vote saw a campaign based on lies, bullying, fear, and bigotry, and said “yes, that’s what we’re all about,” suggests that the US is irreparably doomed. To think that people saw a campaign based on lies, bullying, fear, and bigotry, and gave an exasperated shrug, at least suggests we can get better.

Whatever the plan is, it doesn’t work unless it works for everyone. That means rejecting any idea that doesn’t make the process as democratic as possible. Obviously, that means a flat rejection of any President who brazenly admits he doesn’t work for people who didn’t vote for him (spoiler: he doesn’t work for the people who voted for him, either), and tries to act as if Californians and Puerto Ricans aren’t US citizens. It means a flat rejection of legislators who are more preoccupied with stuffing judicial appointments with as many people of their party as possible instead of actually legislating. It means rejecting anyone who tries to suppress or manipulate the vote. It means eliminating the electoral college. These are all the basics, and anyone who suggests it’s “partisan” to support democracy is selling you a bold-faced lie.

The more complicated part that people like me have to realize is that it means including everyone, including the irretrievably broken assholes. The bigots screaming racist shit at a Trump rally need to be part of it, so we can assert that they are in the minority. Divide and conquer is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but it’s depressing how often we still fall for it. Not just from the obvious sources like the Republicans who rely on it to stay in power, but anyone who profits from your “engagement.” But if we continue to believe the bullshit narrative that we’re a nation divided, with elites in the big cities having no idea how good honest folk in Trump Country live, then we’re essentially ceding half of the country over to self-interested grifters.

One of the insidious ideas that’s been floating in the American consciousness ever since Reagan and his followers farted it out is that being patriotic or pro-America is a “conservative” idea. I mean, I’m sure that people have been calling each other “un-American” for as long as the country’s existed, but at least in my lifetime, it was during the 80s that liberals stopped arguing against it. So all the grossest representatives of white America would wrap themselves in the US flag and wave sparklers around and insist that only they represented true American values, while liberals couldn’t figure out how exactly to promote globalism, diversity, peace, and equality as being somehow not mutually exclusive with patriotism.

It seems like we were so eager to show how chauvinistic and militaristic we weren’t, that we stopped defending the trademark, and we just let astoundingly hypocritical politicians and redneck assholes (and sometimes, both) take it over. “America, Fuck Yeah!” became a joke, along with schmaltzy displays of patriotism. It’s only by insisting that patriotism is somehow partisan that you end up with the disgusting spectacle of the President of the United States telling US Representatives to “go back where they came from.”

Instead of pointing and laughing at the hypocrites and rednecks, we should’ve been showing the right way to do it. Insisting on a version of America that works for everybody, and to listen to people when they tell us over and over that it isn’t working for them. Demanding that we all share what we’re entitled to, instead of being treated like special interests. If there is anything good to come out of this nightmare, it’s that maybe more people will be knocked out of their sense of complacency and finally be forced to admit that the system hasn’t been working for people who aren’t straight, white, and upper middle class.

On a more practical level: the podcast Majority 54 with Jason Kander is entirely devoted to the idea of restoring our democracy and rejecting the lazy idea that we’re a nation hopelessly divided. It’s a good slap back to reality for those of us who’ve spent too much time being influenced by Vox headlines and Twitter threads.

There’s also Represent.us, which is drawing attention to the problem and asserting that democracy is not a partisan concern, no matter how much the GOP would like to insist that it is. And via Fair Fight, Stacey Abrams is campaigning for free and fair elections.

It’s appropriate that the shithead currently acting as President has a history with the WWE, because this is in a lot of ways the kayfabe administration. Everyone spreading a lot of bullshit that they know is a lie, the only truth being that there’s a lot of money in getting people wrapped up in the spectacle and eager to scream at the heel. I still say voting us into this nonsense was inexcusable, but I have to believe that there’s a viable way out for all of us. It sure as hell doesn’t mean that we have to like or respect or even empathize with each other, but we do just have to share and do the barest minimum to act like responsible adults.