An Alarming Digital Theft

We live in an age of digital theft, though not the kind you think of.  The real digital theft is committed mostly by companies like Google and Meta that steal your data and then resell it back to you in the form of advertising.

But some digital theft feels more like highway robbery, as in this story in the Times about some humble folk artists who were robbed of the ownership of their own original songs.

No one should be surprised that there is theft, even of intellectual property.  What is disconcerting is how difficult it is to reclaim ownership of the stolen property.  Our “system” of publication and distribution of intellectual property is clumsy and defective.

But I believe the genie is out of the bottle on this issue.


Divas about Divas

Join us for SIX: The Musical, a 90-minute extravaganza inspired by the queens of pop – Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Jennifer Lopez, and Rihanna.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a less promising enticement.  I’m impressed though at the remarkable collection of seven of the most inconsequential talents in the pop universe, seven of the singers I would least likely want to hear, all of them making extensive use of Autotune, all of them products, all of them narcissists of the highest order.

On the same day, someone else on Facebook posted a photo of Taylor Swift at some football game with the comment that she did not “ask” to be on TV at the football game.

On the contrary, all she does is “ask” to be on TV.


Music Industry Reform

The music industry is structured to rip off artists and fans. It’s time the government legislated minimum standards for all recording contracts specifically to prevent companies from charging artists for ancillary services they are actually providing to themselves, and to guarantee minimum royalties per unit sold regardless of advances. Producers should also be prohibited from seizing co-writing credits for songs they record even if they suggest specific arrangements and instrumentation. And yes, break up the ticket agent monopolies so that venues and artists are free to choose the lowest cost agencies. Every recording on which the singer is auto-tuned (which is almost all of them now) should be labelled as such so we can tell who really is a good singer and who is just processed noise.

And it should be illegal to claim that ABBA was ever really anything more than a banal pop band.

Buffy’s Identity Problem

It’s one thing to deny what now seems obvious. But to attack the journalists who exposed the truth about your ethnic identity as neo-colonialists and racist and sexist is beyond the pale. And given what Sainte-Marie has said previously about her ancestry, she cannot now claim, with sincerity, that she just “didn’t know”. She actively lied, and made up new lies to misdirect people from the old lies. Now she says, well, “I know who I am”, which is a nice way of refusing to take responsibility.

I have a mental hobby of pretending I’m the PR guy for whoever is embroiled in the latest scandal and have to come up with the best solution. In this case, I think she would have been better served with a line of “I admired indigenous culture so much that I wanted to be part of it, and I went too far, and did lie, and I am very sorry. And yes, it was terribly unfair to those of legitimate indigenous ancestry and if I haven’t already done enough to make up for it, I now wish to try.”

Instead, the stubborn denials and self-pity and claims of victimization leave a bad taste in the mouth.

She also claims to have been black-listed by the U.S. government, presidents Johnson and Nixon, and the FBI.  I can’t find any evidence of this other than her own assertion:

The former FBI director blacklisted Sainte-Marie as her protest songs gained more and more popularity. She didn’t know that it had happened for about 20 years until a deejay “told me that he had letters on White House stationery commending him for having suppressed my music.”  Toronto Star

What deejay?  From who in the White House?  Did she try to obtain the related documents through a Freedom of Information request?

It’s all beginning to sound a little pathetic.  And if it wasn’t pathetic enough, she now tosses out claims that she was sexually abused by her brother and someone else she won’t identify.  The brother is deceased– of course (like Joan Baez’  father)– but his daughter (Sainte-Marie’s niece) revealed letters that strongly suggest that Buffy Sainte-Marie threatened to publicly claim he sexually abused her to deter him from continuing to publicly challenge her claims of being born to an indigenous tribe in Saskatchewan when (as is now overwhelmingly clear) she was actually born to a white Christian family in Massachusetts.   He backed off.

She should want to be remembered instead for these lines:

Now that your big eyes are finally open
Now that you’re wondering, how must they feel?
Meaning them that you chased ‘cross America’s movie screens.

They are very good.  It’s a powerful song.  We can have both.  We can acknowledge her accomplishments and the weaknesses of character and dishonesty and leave it at that.


Not so Swift

Updated 2024-03-20;  I noted below that you rarely hear Taylor Swift playing solo accompanying herself on guitar.  Well, NPR had her over for a Tiny Desk Concert– a great idea, by the way– and here she is.  

I stand by my comments.  She sounds like a talented but amateurish teenager, and, yes, her lyrics remain sophomoric, and, yes, narcissistic (I am SO fascinating).  Her first song tries to convince you that if she were a man, she would not be criticized the way she is as a woman.   There’s a lot of men who could enlighten her on that subject.  (And where does the majority of criticism come from?  That’s right: women.)   But I do give her points for not getting all whiny and self-pitying about it.  And I like Taylor Swift– I do.  She’s just entertainment for a lot of fans who don’t need anything deep or original in their music but she’s a good role model.  I loved that she re-recorded her songs to take back control over her music (and I hope she inspires others to watch what they sign).

I have had various peripheral encounters with the Taylor Swift phenomenon.   I put her in the category of rap music, Harry Potter books, Star Wars, and other cultural products that become extremely popular but have no real value to me.  There is a point at which the sheer magnitude of their popularity can have a transfixing effect on critics and writers who should know better.  Inevitably, someone will write a epic piece on “Star Wars” or “Harry Potter” that will allege that the seeming banality of these works conceals a plethora of significant and substantial meaning that we all now need to proclaim obeisance to.

No it doesn’t.  “Star Wars” was intended as “B Movie” right from the start, a shallow, trivial pastiche of conventionality and cliché.  Lucas himself would never have dreamed that anyone would regard it as “significant” or deep or meaningful until it took in more than $100 million in ticket sales.  It’s just good fun with space ships and aliens.  “Harry Potter”– have you actually read any of the books?– is actually pretty bad literature.  I mean it is actually poorly written.  The sentences, the paragraphs, the pages and pages of repackaged wizards and golems and sorcerers with very little that is fresh, captivating, or inspiring.  And never poetic or allusive or provocative.  Rap music?  Streams of syllables over a packaged beat.  What the hell did anyone ever think was really interesting about it?  The fact that it emerged from black culture, that it supposedly defies authority and the establishment, that it expresses — what?  The desire to rape or kill, or brag, or bully?

And now there is Taylor Swift.  And here is a great mystery.  There is no doubt that Swift is a rather banal, narcissistic, self-referential, sophomoric songwriter.   If it could be said that she actually does write her own songs (I am very skeptical) her songs are almost completely about herself and how she feels about herself and how she feels about others feeling something about herself.    She’s not a particularly good performer either.  Let’s hear her without auto-tune, by herself, playing her own instrument of her choice.  You won’t.  At least, not for a while, until they decide — if they do– to package her that way.  If there are other people in her songs, they are very important because they play a role in how she feels about herself.  [Well, here she is— judge for yourself.]

But, to my astonishment– I mean, complete and utter astonishment– the New York Times Daily Podcast just presented an utterly slavish, adoring, idiotic tribute to her, citing her choice as Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year”, and her massive popularity (of course her tour broke records: inflation never goes backwards, so every new big artist is going to break records).

I thought, did I miss something?  Do I have to go back and listen her to best songs again with a fresh approach to see if there is something in them that I did not notice the first time?  Or…

I listened with great interest.  As cars drove by me on my walk, I turned the volume up on the podcast: I didn’t want to miss this explanation.  Why is Taylor Swift so great?   The podcast was hosted by Michael Barbaro who interviewed Taffy Brodesser-Akner.  Both admitted immediately that they were Taylor Swift fans.  They unembarrassedly admitted they were “swifties”.  Seriously?  This is the New York Times!

Okay, so the Times is giving up the idea of objectivity right off the bat.  But let’s hear the reasons– tell my why her songs are so great, and why she is important.

The answer:  well, she wrote a song about how she wanted to go to the mall once and she called up her girlfriends and none of them wanted to go with her so she went by herself, with her mother, and there, at the mall, were all her girlfriends.  They hadn’t included her.  But her mother was very pleasant about it all and they laughed and she had a great time driving home with her mother in a car.

I am not making this up.  This is an “important” Taylor Swift song.  It is meaningful and substantive and unprecedented (Taffy Bordesser-Akner certainly thought so which immediately prompts the question: are you even familiar with the subject of popular music?).   No one, according to Taffy, has ever expressed the feelings of betrayal and lost innocence like Taylor Swift!

Taffy went on to talk about how Kanye West interrupted her at some awards show and then she befriended him and forgave him and then the cad criticized her in a song.  Egad!  Outrageous!  He used to be her friend and then he wasn’t.  She wrote a song about it and that song is incredibly important and meaningful.  To Taffy and millions of air-heads.

The third song they talked about was “All too Well”.  Once again, he was her friend, then he wasn’t.  Apparently it’s about Jake Gyllenhaal.  One version goes on for ten minutes.  Taffy is deeply impressed by lyrics like

And maybe we got lost in translation
Maybe I asked for too much
But maybe this thing was a masterpiece
’til you tore it all up
Running scared, I was there
I remember it all too well

Come on.  Seriously?

What all of these songs have in common is the over-looked possibility that Taylor Swift is annoying.  Perhaps her friends didn’t accept her invitation to go to the mall because they really wanted to hurt her feelings.  Perhaps they just didn’t like her.    But Taffy, listen to yourself!  It’s a fucking song about going to the mall and hanging out with your friends.  It is not deep.  It’s not original.  It’s not fresh.  It’s not profound.  It’s a trivial song about a trivial transaction blip in an adolescent girls’ social life.  But Taffy– in the ultimate expression of confirmation bias– proclaims it courageous precisely because almost no self-respecting female singer-songwriter would ever embarrass herself by writing such triviality.

It’s true.  Because the female singer-songwriters we think of were into much more substantial and original expressions of their art.  And absolutely, they would be embarrassed by “All too Well”.

Here’s more:

And you call me up again just to break me like a promise
So casually cruel in the name of being honest
I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here
‘Cause I remember it all, all, all
Too well

The language is stiff, forced.  “casually cruel” and “in the name of being honest” and “crumpled up piece of paper” are neither striking nor original and certainly not very powerful.   It’s the very definition of sophomoric.

I wonder if Ms. Brodesser-Akner has heard of Joni Mitchell or Ani DiFranco,

It was bad enough that the Times gave overweening preposterous adoration to a trivial, inane pop figure whose success is hugely the result of massive publicity and promotion as much as her own skill at manipulating her public image.  Worse was yet to come:  Taffy was audibly tearful about how she could relate to Swift’s struggles against her music company after it sold her masters to an investor.   She too had been exploited and cheated by people she trusted and loved– paid less then her male colleagues*, not being appreciated for her real talents and skills, being grateful to even have a job, the way Taylor Swift was grateful to her record company for making her famous and rich.  Taffy was astounded at Swift’s stunningly amazing decision to re-record her masters so she could sell them instead of the ones owned by the investors.

What would have been genuinely impressive would be if Swift was smart enough not to sign the deal she signed– willingly, in exchange for fame and riches– in the first place, or if she, like Ani Difranco, a female artist who is light-years more interesting than Taylor Swift, told the record companies to just fuck off while she managed her own recordings and career.



Little Richard’s Revisionism

Suppose a notorious prostitute gave up her profession, joined a church, went to seminary, became a preacher, established a church, built up it’s membership so that it was able to build a lovely new sanctuary, and then retired.  And suppose that after her retirement, a large group of former customers decided to give her an award for being the best prostitute in the business.

She would refuse, right?  She would prefer that people not even know about her past, but if they did, she would certainly renounce it.  She would publicly return all the money she earned from prostitution to a charity for unwed mothers (or something).

Suppose it was discovered that she financed her new church sanctuary with money she had earned as a prostitute?

Suppose that hundreds of young women read books and articles about her early career and announced that they wanted more than anything to become great prostitutes.

Yes, a very weird story, isn’t it?  It is the story of Little Richard.  Yes it is.

Let me make absolutely career: Little Richard’s rock’n’roll career was not in any manner really prostitution or like prostitution.  I am saying that Little Richard himself, by his own standards as a Christian preacher, came to regard it as such.  Insofar as it goes…

Little Richard was perhaps the greatest genius of the early rock’n’roll era.  If you have never seen a good video of one of his early performances– and I don’t mean just a clip– you must see it.  He is utterly remarkable.  Here’s another.   And another.  He was a whirling dervish of dance and vocals and whoops and hollers and piano, and absolutely mesmerizing.  He excited people so much they sometimes broke into a riot.

Watch Paul McCartney sing for the Beatles in the early years.  You are watching Little Richard.  Watch Mick Jagger, Elvis, David Bowie, Prince, Madonna– all owe an enormous debt to the original, Little Richard.  Even Bob Dylan, someone you would not immediately think of as influenced by Little Richard, listed, in his high school year book, the ambition of joining Little Richard’s band.

And then Little Richard got religion.

Little Richard, who had been brought up in the church, of course, always believed in scripture, in Jesus, in the Ten Commandments and the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t care at first.  He was flamboyant, charismatic, and absolutely homosexual.  He lived the way he wanted.  But in the early 1960’s, he embraced the religion of his upbringing and repudiated rock’n’roll.  He refused to sing any of his hits.  He sang gospel tunes, spirituals.  Sometimes he would spice them up with a performance that suggested if not replicated his early career, but mostly he stood on stage in a suit and sang into a microphone while barely moving his body.

He says he gave up homosexual relationships.  I’m not sure I believe him.  He was still surrounded by gay men at times.  It’s very hard to tell because Little Richard was not known for his honesty or candor when it came to his personal history.

The point is, Little Richard believed that his early career was a sinful expression of a sinful lifestyle– like the prostitute in my fable above.  He begged God to forgive him.  He tried to go straight and reform.


As the documentary, “Little Richard: I am Everything” makes clear, unlike the prostitute of my fable, he wants it both ways.  He demands recognition for the very things he repudiated in his later life.  He demands honors and money for behaviors he now condemns, in his earlier self, and, by implication if not directly, in others.

He complains bitterly about not being paid for his sinful expressions.

I found the last half hour of the documentary a bit offensive because of that.  That, and the the rather clumsy attempt to blame everything that was denied to Little Richard on homophobia, as if the Beatles, and Elvis, and Tom Petty, and Joni Mitchell, and everyone else go their due, except for poor old gay, black Little Richard.  It’s simply not true.  Little Richard did not get compensated fairly for his work because the music industry systematically rips off every young artist whatever their color, religion, or sexual orientation.

Do you think there’s a whole lot of straight male artists out there who were paid fairly and who feel that the industry treated them well?  Or contemporary female country artists?

Leonard Cohen, incidentally, did the smart thing and retained control of his publishing rights… until his agent talked him into selling the entire catalogue to Sony Music and then pilfered the money forcing him to resume touring again.

More on the Music Industry

And on Excessive Demands from Copyright Owners

On How the Music Industry Brilliantly Extended Ripping off the Artist into the Napster Era

On Ani Di Franco’s lovely resistance.

On the unfortunate delusion embraced by Little Richard’s that authentic sexuality is in conflict with his religious faith and Jesus would never love him as the gay man that he is and always will be.

The Slobbering Appreciation of Tina Turner

If you were ever trying to sell me on the importance or artistic genius of a particular singer, song-writer, painter, novelist, or film-maker, the first mistake is to talk about how may books, albums, singles he or she has sold, or how much his latest movie grossed, or how much a painting of his recently sold for at Christies, or even how many Oscars he won.

Leonardo Di Caprio has an Oscar for acting.

Case closed.

To me, that information is worse than irrelevant: it’s a marker of likely mediocrity.  Line up Beyonce, Neil Diamond, Steven Spielberg, Basquiat, Andy Warhol, whoever you like: I’m not buying.

So when Tina Turner died recently we were bombarded with the usual fawning appreciations from the media most of which, of course, exaggerated her good qualities and completely forgot about the bad ones.  That’s to be expected.  What I did not expect was a slobbering wet kiss from the New York Times in the “Headlines” podcast.  The Times, a very, very good paper, should be embarrassed by this one.  Don’t do it again.

For one thing, Tina Turner did not quite stand out as breathlessly alone as the Times made it sound.  There have been a lot of great female rock or pop singers over the years and each one of them claims to have been the first important one.  Diana Ross (another singer I never cared for), Dionne Warwick, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin — of course! Nina Simone– even more of course.  Come on folks– it’s not that hard.

The Fanny’s were more substantial and far more interesting than Tina Turner.  Ever heard of them?  I thought not.

It’s not that Turner is not entitled to an appreciation.  She’s not really the giant some make her out to be: she’s had a few good hits and she put on a lively show and a lot of feminists see her as an icon for self-empowerment for the way she dumped Ike Turner, struck out on her own, and found someone else’s great songs to cover.  I hope the feminists who complain about men oogling women find it in their hearts to forgive Turner for wearing costumes that conspicuously beg to be oogled.  Come on.

“What’s Love Got to Do With It” is not a bad song.  It’s a less incisive update of Bob Dylan’s stunning “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word”, a toxic take-down of romanticism and delusion.  You would not call “What’s Love Got to Do With It” a toxic take down of anything, really.  It’s a glorious hook, wonderful arrangement, and a couple of verses.  Not bad.  It resonates with her disillusionment with Ike Turner.   Okay?  Good song; now let’s not weigh it down with unentitled significance.

“Proud Mary” gets dreary after a while but I can see why someone hearing it for the first time might think of himself as thinking of himself being blown away.   I really dislike the intro on one of the most popular live performances on Youtube, the patter about “we never take things slow”, as if that is supposed to be incredibly sexy or funny or both.

The talk about her “sensational comeback” is a lot of hype: she never stopped touring really and continued to appear on television shows like “Donny and Marie” (yes she did), The Brady Bunch Hour, Sonny and Cher, and Hollywood Squares.  Just because “Private Dancer” was a monster hit doesn’t mean that Turner’s career didn’t exist prior to it, but it’s a story everyone loves and repeats no matter how many times they’ve heard it, or untrue it is.

The bottom line for me is, has she ever done a song that really mattered to me?   Like any of these:

  • Someday Soon (Ian & Sylvia, Judy Collins)
  • Anchorage (Michelle Shocked)
  • Diamonds and Rust (Joan Baez)
  • That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be (Carly Simon)
  • You Don’t Own Me (Leslie Gore)

Doing this list I can’ help but notice how many of these songs performed by women were written by men.  Sigh.  All except “Diamonds and Rust”.

Wikipedia, incidentally, tirelessly lists Tina Turner’s sales records.  A long list of so many so much so popular.   Why?  Because there is not much to say about what she actually achieved artistically?  Loud and fast and legs.

Wikipedia also reports on her divorce and her allegations of physical abuse against Ike Turner while acknowledging that he did a hell of a lot for her career early on.  When they divorced, I had the impression, from all the blather, that he left her penniless.  Yes, penniless, along with two Jaguars, furs, and jewelry.   She demanded $4,000 a month in alimony.  Wiki doesn’t say if she got it or not, but the BS about running away from Ike with 23 cents in her pocket is just that: BS.  Oh, she may have had 23 cents in her pocket– and the keys to the Jaguar.

She refused to attend his funeral.  Phil Spector, the murderer, did.

There is a film.  I’d be absolutely pleasantly stunned if it was any more accurate than the usual Hollywood bullshit.




The Thought Police Strike Again

Once again the thought police have sprung into action.   The Canadian Broadcasts Standards Council has banned the original version of Dire Straits “Money for Nothing”.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council is a “self-governing regulatory body for Canada’s private broadcasters”.  What does that mean?  That means it can’t arrest you.  It is reminiscent of the Hays code, Hollywood’s attempt to clean itself up before Congress did it legislatively.  It is the CRTC, thank god, that has the real power, but I assume that the CBSC has some sway.

And how do you get the CBSC to ban a song you don’t like?  Hey, it’s a free-for-all!  Just contact them and announce that humble little you, just one out of 30 million citizens, has decided that you must step in and decide which songs should be played on the radio no matter how many people like it.

I am curious now: what if I filed a complaint.  What if I alleged that the censorship of “Money for Nothing” is deeply offensive to my delicate little sensibilities about truth and integrity and honesty and historical accuracy?  I am veritably traumatized by the idea that my precious memories of dramatic depictions of real personalities and social values are being erased by repressed puritanical little zealots with a political agenda.  Does my objection count?

Yes, I am enraged.  I feel threatened by a world that is sliding towards banality and antiseptic homogeneity.  Hey, can I file a complaint about vocalists using Autotune?  If ever there was a legitimate complaint to be made to a “broadcast standards” council that would be it.

Not only do they want to correct your current misshapen and erroneous ideas and feelings; they want to go back in time and correct your past iniquities.  Do you remember “Money for Nothing”?  It was a snippet of a certain attitude at a certain time and place.

Let’s get one thing absolutely clear and straight right off the bat:  “Money for Nothing” is not a dramatization of Mark Knopfler’s thoughts and feelings about MTV or gay people or microwave ovens.  It is a clever, insightful, reasonably accurate depiction of the attitudes of a working class schlub working at an appliance store watching MTV and thinking, geez, I could do that.   Are we clear?  Do you understand the difference between and artist and the subject?  Do you understand what drama is?  Do you get that when a writer tells you that a character committed a murder that the artist himself is not committing murder?

Here are the “offensive” lyrics:

See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup?
Yeah buddy, that’s his own hair
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot, he’s a millionaire

I knew people who thought like that.  I don’t need any one to tell me to not remember him or his attitudes.   I don’t need anyone to try to erase the record of that person from public discourse.

Is the next step to go through Shakespeare and Dante and Dostoevsky and remove all the violence and murders and even the insults from their works?  Why not?  We no longer think people should be murdered.  It distresses people to see murder depicted in a play or movie.  Let’s remove it.  Let’s remove the rape scene from “Streetcar Named Desire”.  We don’t approve of rape any more.

And how does “Walk on the Wild Side” (Lou Reed) and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” get away with it?   How about this, from the innocuous Elton John and Bernie Taupin (“All the Girls Love Alice”):

And who could you call your friends down in Soho?
One or two middle-aged dykes in a Go-Go
And what do you expect from a sixteen year old yo-yo
And hey, hey, hey (hey, hey, hey) oh don’t you know?

And please, please, please:  “All the Girls Love Alice” is not “by” Elton John.  The salient component here is the lyrics which are by Bernie Taupin.  Would the internet please grow up and get this straight?  Most of the songs it says are “by” an artist are actually merely recorded by that artist.  They do not deserve the holiest credit of all, the act of creation, which most of them don’t deserve even in respect of their vocals.

You think, well, we can’t gut one of America’s greatest works of drama, can we?  “Streetcar Named Desire” is a classic.  It is untouchable.  But how does that make a difference when public morals are at stake?  And what is the difference between the character saying “faggot” in “Money for Nothing” and the character raping Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire”?  They are both dramas of believable human behavior.  They both tell us, this is something someone would do (and has done, in real life), in the setting and circumstance depicted.  What is the problem?

There is no real problem.  What there is is a bunch of pious, self-righteous individuals trying to assert their own virtue by punishing a perceived miscreant.  Burn the witch.

If I was a gay man of any prominence I would have issued a statement– like the self-righteous guardians of public morality do– and insisted that Dire Straits keep the fucking lyrics exactly the way they are, just as “Huckleberry Finn” should retain the word “nigger” used in reference Jim, the escaped slave, just as Stanley should continue to rape Blanche in stage productions of “Streetcar Named Desire”, just as Ophelia should continue to commit suicide in any staging of “Hamlet” (spoiler alert).

And Leonard Cohen should never have excised “give me crack and anal sex” from his searing original version of “The Future”.    (Here, in a supreme act of gutlessness, Cohen jumps the shark and changes it to “careless sex”; am I harsh?  Yes, I admit it.  When you were influenced by an artist to embrace the authentic, the true, the audacious, and then he starts embracing compromise– yes, I’m harsh.  The odd thing is that as I am getting older, unlike Cohen, I feel less and less inclined to cater to the more delicate sensibilities around me.  Maybe it’s just a phase.  And here, expanding his audience for the sanitized version, he appears on– god help us– Letterman (!), changing  “crack” to “speed” and interjecting the awful “careless sex”.)  He didn’t have to castrate anything here:  he’s on the Ralph Benmurgui show.  And if you’re curious, here’s the original lyrics attached to inane video effects.  Finally, thank you, thank you, thank you Erlend Ropstad & the Salmon Smokers for this!

Finally, let me note the hypocrisy.  Here are the lines no one seems to object to:

It’s lonely here
There’s no one left to torture….

There’ll be fires there’ll be phantoms on the road
And the white man dancing…

Destroy another fetus now

Lie beside me baby, that’s an order

“Nigger” is what white people called black people at that time in history.    If I was teaching a college class on racism, I would discuss how the word “nigger” was used in America for years as a label of contempt and expression of white superiority.  “Faggot” is what straight working class white men called gay men at the time Mark Knopfler wrote that song.  “Dyke” is what they called women who were either gay or had turned down their advances.

We have reached a new pinnacle of stupid when a writer has to explain to the audience that this song or story is about someone who really existed and really thought that way.  Listen.  Consider it.  Be glad that we have made some progress (never enough, but some).  Tell your children that that’s the way working class white men used to talk about gay people.  Tell your children we now know better.

Tell your children is wrong to try to rewrite history into something false in order to avoid offending the delicate sensibilities of the weakest among us.

Oh My God! We’re Getting More Anxious

Ross Douthat of the New York Times— the token conservative commentator on the opinion page– accepts the results of a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show that teenagers today– especially–omygawd! girls– are more anxious, more depressed, and more unhappy than ever before.

By “social liberalism” I don’t mean the progressivism that took off in the Trump era — antiracism and diversity-equity-inclusion and #MeToo. I mean the more individualistic liberalism that emerged in the 1960s and experienced a second takeoff across the first decade of the 2000s. Its defining features were rapid secularization (the decline of Christian identification accelerated from the 1990s onward) and increasing social and sexual permissiveness — extending beyond support for same-sex marriage to beliefs about premarital sex, divorce, out-of-wedlock childbearing, marijuana use and more.

And it’s all because of the liberals!  Douthat doesn’t think gun violence should depress anyone, or the cut-throat competitive nature of the U.S. economy, or the fear of being bankrupted by medical expenses, or the fact that a sexual predator and psychopath was elected president in 2016.  Oh no.  It’s the widespread availability of sex, gay or hetero, as a woman or a man or neither, and, of course, drug use.  Have we heard this before?

I have two points.  First of all, we hear about these studies all the time– and I mean ALL the time.  Sociologists and social scientists just love asking teenagers if they are happy.  Now, imagine for a moment you are a teenager.  And life is not great, but it’s not all bad either.  You’re kind of getting through it.  You have some hopes and dreams and know you might have to work hard to achieve them.  You have friends.  Then someone comes along and asks you if you are happy or depressed or anxious.  They ask you again an hour later.  They ask you again the next day, and the next, and the next.  You read articles in the New York Times or see pieces on CNN that tell you that a big problem today is that teenagers are not very happy.  You start to wonder.  Maybe I am unhappy.  Maybe I’m depressed.

I don’t deny that it might be true.  What I question is the assumption that these numbers represent a net change from previous eras, like the 1940’s, the 1950’s, and 1960’s.   How would we know?  It’s a great question to thoughtfully ask yourself: how would we know?

Nobody studied issues like this in the same comprehensive, systematic way in the 1950’s as we do now.  We didn’t have the internet, obviously, or social media, and even television and radio was completely different than they are today.  We didn’t have as many books or magazines or records or films.  We didn’t have as many family photographs or recordings, let alone video.  We had numerous wars around the world, and the U.S. itself was embroiled in Korea, and about to get embroiled in Viet Nam.

We had a lot of obvious racism, whites only schools, whites only restaurants and drinking fountains.  We had a lot of drunk driving and date-rape, both of which now are severely punished, but were not back then.  In fact, the consensus on rape seemed to be to not report it at all.  We had a lot of teen pregnancy, “shotgun” weddings, and groping and petting.  We had a society that blindly worshipped the military and the police.  (It is no coincidence that Douthat, a conservative, would harken back to an era of such “stellar” values even if he doesn’t make explicit those particular values).

I suspect that a big part of our perception of the 1950’s has been shaped by unrealistic media portrayals, most emblematically, in “Happy Days” and the movie “American Graffiti”.   Have a look at “The Last Picture Show”, “Diner”, “Rebel Without a Cause”, or “Badlands” for a corrective.

Secondly, Douthat clearly implies that enthusiastic membership in a church is a viable corrective.  If only we had a study that showed that teenagers who are active members of churches are happier, less depressed and less anxious,  and happier, than those who are not.   We have no such study.

What studies we do have that compare church-going folk with non-church-going folk seems to show that we are all largely the same, holy or profane, saved or damned.  We all indulge in porn.  We all cheat and lie.  (But only one side votes for Trump and loves guns and only one side believes you may have been born to the wrong gender and the world is warming.)

Even for Douthat, this column is unusually contrived in his desperation to find some way to blame liberals and progressives for the sad state of America.   Like all conservatives, he knows that his side, the side of regressive, low tax, deregulated economies, benefits by promoting a sense that we are on the brink of catastrophe.  Nothing new.  We’ve been on this brink according to the Douthats of the world since Elvis first gyrated his hips.

Social Toxicity in Action: Your Cockatiel is Missing

CTV news had a story about a local woman who lost her pet cockatiel. I thought, well, I’m glad I live in a country where this is a news story. Beats the alternatives. Then I read the comments on the story. Some people actually expressed the wish that the bird would be killed and eaten. Others were dismayed that this story displaced more important stories about the earthquake or the new Russian offensive in Ukraine. There were comments by people who hated the first comments, and then by people who hated the second comments, and then by people who hated the people who made the hateful comments about the hateful comments. Humanity at its toxic worst.

The other night, PBS News had an interview with a Democratic governor, Phil Murphy of New Jersey, and a Republican governor, Spencer Cox, of Utah. The two men sat together, beside each other. They were civil, constructive, engaging, and respectful. They liked each other a lot, even though they had fundamental disagreements in many policy areas. They were working together on various important issues and trying to find common ground in areas where they disagreed. It was marvelous. It was inspiring. It was a powerful contrast to the toxic national political scene right now. It was reason for hope.

I’m not sure if that leaves me optimistic or pessimistic right now.

And yes, of course I wished the two of them would form a ticket for President and VP in 2024. And I am very sure that a majority of voters would love a team like that.

But it is a truism in American politics that you probably can’t win a nomination from your party right now if you don’t join the toxicity. The voters say they hate lying, compromised, attack-dog candidates but they vote for them. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

And now, let’s shoot down another ‘balloon’.