Faking It

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(Pictured: a Van Halen cover band guitarist. Hang on, I’m being told this is actually country star Jake Owen.)

It is time again for another edition of Short Attention Span Theater, in which I plunder my Drafts file for bits that never added up to full posts. First, some radio shop talk:

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever got as a young jock was from a program director who told me that when you’re reading a commercial script for a paying client, it shouldn’t sound the same as the weather forecast. Your job is to sell, he told me, to make the product or service sound good or useful or fun or important so that listeners will want to buy it. To do that, you have to engage with the script. Getting the selling words and phrases across is only part of it. It’s also a matter of infusing the words with an intention that the words be heard and acted upon. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing a soft sell for a jewelry store or a yelling spot for a car dealer—your goal is to connect with your listener in such a way that at the very least they’ll think, “Yeah, I’ll definitely consider that,” if not “Hot damn, I need to go buy that right now.”

After a while, how you make this connection becomes kinda automatic. “OK, this is an ad for a bank, I gotta do it this way.” “Next one is plugging the county fair, OK, that’s going to go like this.” It’s a natural consequence of experience. You get so you can do it pretty quickly. There’s an old wisecrack that says, “Once you learn how to fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.” Ideally, however, you don’t want the listeners to feel like you’re faking it. You want to sound like you’re communicating directly with them, one real human being to another, instead of just reading words off the page.

On the subject of faking it, one of the top songs in country music right now is “Best Thing Since Backroads,” yet another lifestyle-signifier-checklist record, recorded by Jake Owen, who grew up on the beach and whose first aspiration in life was to play professional golf. So he’s not exactly a shitkicker, but he did get into the right career at the right time in history.

Country music was born quite literally on front porches and in roadside bars in Appalachia and the rural South, created by people who spent most of their days picking cotton or mining coal or whatever the hell, doing their best to win something in a society stacked against them. Even after Nashville turned into a slick hitmaking machine, the most popular country music was grounded in real places and real experiences. There are still country artists working that ground today, but they aren’t getting played on the radio much. To me, the greatest sin mainstream radio country commits today isn’t trend-chasing, or even marginalizing female artists—it’s the cynical way it treats authenticity. It continues to pay lip service to it, with songs about dirt roads and small towns, but they’re written and recorded (and listened to and bought) by people who grew up in the suburbs and went to state universities. Hand them a fishing pole and they couldn’t tell you where the worm goes.

In 21st century America, consumerism is everything, and it doesn’t matter how you sell the product as long as it’s bought. As consumers, we don’t care about how stuff is sold to us. So if mainstream country music has nothing to do anymore with the places it came from, there’s practically nobody left to object.

It also grinds my gears that “backroads” is one word when it should be two. 

And finally, something new, written today: 

Sometimes you come across a creative endeavor so wildly unique that you wonder how somebody could even conceive it, let alone turn that wild-ass idea into something real. Take for example Hamilton, which The Mrs. and I saw the other night. But being gobsmacked by the creativity of something doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to like it. My feeling had nothing to do with my general dislike of hip-hop; that part was fine. Hamilton felt overstuffed with characters and plotlines; I found it difficult to follow, and it was at least 45 minutes too long. All credit to Lin-Manuel Miranda for bringing his wild-ass idea to life, and all respect to the millions of people who have enjoyed it, but it was a long night for me.

Meet the Bickersons

I don’t think it’s a spoiler for this week’s episode of Better Call Saul to say that Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul finally made their long-awaited return as Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. Listening to the two argue, Saul Goodman says, “I was enjoying the Laurel and Hardy vibe, but I’m not such a fan of the Bickersons.”


Continue reading “Meet the Bickersons”

“I’m Here to Bring Inspiration”

(I knocked this piece off in about an hour this morning, which is not the way I usually write. If it seems half-baked, that’s why.)

I’m not religious. As I think back on it, I’m not sure I ever was. I did all of the things you do when you grow up in a church, but it was largely because it was what was expected of me, rather than out of genuine commitment to what it meant. I prayed by myself at night from the time I was just a kid, and while I hoped I was being heard, I never knew for sure. In our mid-30s, Ann and I joined a church, and for a while we were very active in it. For the first time in my life, I felt like prayer was actually having concrete results. But it wasn’t long before the connection was terminated. I don’t know why it happened; it just did. And after doing a lot of reading and studying and thinking over the next couple of years, I decided that I was wrong about the connection. Ain’t nobody up there, not Yahweh or Allah or Zeus or Thor or any other supernatural being. When I thought I was talking to God, I was talking to myself.

Accepting that was incredibly liberating. I had lived the first 40 years of my life with the internalized notion that I was being watched and judged, and the knowledge that I could not live up to the standard that I was being judged by. My mental health, such as it is over these last 20 years or so, is vastly improved by the belief—no, the knowledge—that I am responsible for my actions only to the people who are affected by them. Not some dude in a celestial palace, a guy I won’t meet until after I’m dead, and who laid down the rules thousands of years ago, when people couldn’t explain why it rained without recourse to magic.

Some people will tell you that the human brain is wired for religion. I doubt it, if by religion they mean rituals involving holy books and black robes. If we’re wired for anything, it’s probably to crave connection. We don’t want to be alone. Also, we’re wired to find purpose. We don’t want to feel like rats in a maze, running around for no reason. This wiring is why we formed societies in the first place, when groups of people not related by blood decided to live together. You can call the connection and purpose religion if you want, although you don’t have to. It’s enough to want to be part of a group of people that shares something all find important, and which uses that important thing to animate the way they live.

Some people go to church on Sunday to affirm that they are not alone, and to affirm their purpose for carrying on. Some of us find that affirmation elsewhere.

Last night, Ann and I saw Mavis Staples and Bonnie Raitt in concert. Mavis, who is 83 years old now but performs like a much younger person, comes out of the gospel tradition, and every one of her songs had a religious bent—but not a sectarian one. Mavis’ religion does not tell you how to vote and who to hate. She said at one point, “I’m here to bring joy. I’m here to bring inspiration.” Her songs argued that we’re in this world together, and that while the road is sometimes hard and long, we must keep going forward, together. They were all infused with the hope that we might someday get to the place where love and brotherhood prevail, and even when the road is at its roughest, we must not lose our determination to walk it, together. Bonnie’s message, discussing her long years of activism and her fears and hopes in this moment, was less explicit, but not much different. Her music is the expression of a soul on the same journey that Mavis describes.

Today, the religion of millions in America is a terrible, destructive force that diminishes our humanity and will, if undefeated, destroy our planet. The religion of Mavis Staples and Bonnie Raitt—a belief in the importance of human connection and common purpose that stands outside of ancient dogma and modern prejudice, driven by both the hope that we will achieve that connection and purpose and the determination to do so—is the only religion that will save us, the only one we need.

Grandpa in the Sky

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(Pictured: in 2006, Jack Black played King Herod in a one-off performance of Jesus Christ Superstar, which is just the greatest thing ever.)

Imagine if you will, or remember if you can, one of those indestructible portable turntables, with a lid that opened like a suitcase, a thick metal tonearm, a stylus not unlike a drywall nail, and a speaker that was made for volume rather than fidelity. Now imagine it blasting Jesus Christ Superstar, echoing through a church sanctuary or fellowship hall. Imagine further a group of concerned adults listening carefully, perhaps following along from lyrics typed up and mimeographed by the church secretary. As they listen, they ask themselves: is this blasphemous? Or are the kids are saying something worth hearing?

Superstar was supposed to be a stage musical, but Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice couldn’t get the money together, so it was released as a concept album in 1970. An authorized, one-time stage production was mounted after the album became a giant hit, but the copyright owners spent the summer of 1971 shutting down unauthorized productions before it officially opened on Broadway that October.

Superstar brought religion into pop culture in a big new way, but I wonder if that would have happened without the collapse of the hippie dream of the 1960s. When it became clear that bomber jet planes were not going to turn into butterflies, the kids looked for alternatives to revolution as a source of hope or meaning, and many of them got religion. But their religion couldn’t be harsh or legalistic, and require congregants to wear a necktie or a dress; it had to be accessible. (Did your church hire its first “youth pastor” about this time? Mine did.) Your relationship with God wasn’t going to be something you experienced intellectually as much as something you felt. There has always been a strong strain of emotionalism in American religion—the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries, the holy rollers of the rural South, and Black churches, to name a few—but the middle-class, whitebread Protestant denominations of the mid-20th century had largely avoided it. But personal, feel-it-in-your-heart religiosity eventually infiltrated those bastions too.

At some point around 1972, several members of our middle-class whitebread Protestant church got into the whole charismatic revival thing. My parents stayed on the fringes of it, although they went to some of the meetings, and for a time, they watched televised services from a charismatic church, with people in the throes of religious ecstasy speaking in tongues. It was in this period that I read The Late Great Planet Earth and learned about the Rapture, with believers taken bodily into Heaven and sinners Left Behind. The latter had such a hold on my imagination that whenever the house would get quiet, I would wonder if the Rapture had happened.

I always just assumed I was getting Left Behind.

Eventually, our church sponsored an entire revival week. (I would like to know precisely how this happened, for it does not seem like something that our dignified whitebread senior pastors would have cottoned to.) There were services for all and breakout sessions for adults and youth, and I went for the whole week, toting a copy of The Living Bible. The speakers were not members of our church; they came from elsewhere. One young woman, celestial light gleaming in her eyes, told a group of 12-year-olds that she thought it would be cool to die, because then she would get to see what Heaven is like. Which seemed, even to 12-year-old me, like missing the entire point of living. No wonder I was getting Left Behind.

(It’s not correct to say that the experience made me an atheist; I remained at least nominally a believer until I was almost 40. But I have never forgotten the moment, or the bent worldview it expressed.)

The pop religiosity of the 1970s was new at the time, but today, it’s pervaded religion at every level. For most believers, God is no longer a celestial thunderer passing out judgment as much as he is a kindly grandpa in the sky. Even followers of Republican Jesus, for all their legalistic interpretations of the Old Testament and their desire to see God wreak punishment on their enemies, base their belief on a personal relationship with him. Smarter people than I could tell you for sure, but I see the origins of it in Superstar and the religious revivals of the 1970s.

Trouble on the Astral Plane

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The dreams that stick are not the lengthy narratives. The dreams that stick are images, a quick flash of this or that. And I think to myself, as if I were watching the dream on a screen, “Oh, that’s so-and-so,” or “I remember being there.”

And so it was that I saw her again.

What makes this kind of thing happen I do not know. Electro-chemical reaction in the brain, I suppose. Certainly that’s a more likely explanation than to say I was sailing the astral plane, although who but a neuroscientist wouldn’t prefer the latter?

Randomly firing synapses or soul travel, either way, there’s the question: why? Why her, why then?

Because music plays in my life all the time, maybe it was a song I heard the previous day—or one I was going to hear the next. It happens that way sometimes, in dreams. We see someone or go somewhere by night, and the next day we bump up against the memory in the waking world. We see a picture or somebody mentions a name, as if the dream made the reality and not the other way around.

I did not hear her name the next day, but I dreamed about her the night before.

In the dream, she is young, just as she was when I first saw her. In the dream, I am not, just as I am not young now. And it occurs to me, there in the dream, that I am not in the dream with her, really. “Oh, that’s so-and-so,” I think to myself, in precisely the way you do when a photo pops up in a slideshow, or when you turn the page in a photo album. “I remember her.”

What I remember specifically, I finally decide, is her eyes, round and dark, and the way they glowed with things you would never know—things about her, and things about you.

She didn’t know any more than anybody else did, of course, and she really couldn’t predict my future. But that’s not how it seemed when we were young.

Truth to tell, it’s not really how it seems in the dream, either. She is not flashing her intelligence in that haughty way she had. She’s just there.

And I wonder why she is there, as I have wondered before about dreams.

Why? Some night soon, when you’re being chased by a monster in a dream, or trapped in a fire, try telling yourself “it’s just an electro-chemical reaction in my brain” and see how far it gets you. Running into trouble on the astral plane has much more explanatory power. But even that might be too much.

She’s just there. She doesn’t look at me or speak to me. She doesn’t say, “I love you,” or “I’m sorry,” or anything else. And I don’t say anything to her. I don’t do anything, except to think, “Oh, that’s so-and-so. I remember her.”

It’s only when I wake up that I try to find a story, and it twists backward and forward, with scenes of her back then, and me back then, and scenes of me in the present, remembering.

Not sad-remembering, or angry-remembering, only faces-in-the-night remembering, unstuck in time like Billy Pilgrim on Tralfamadore.

And it strikes me finally, as Billy learned, that there is no why. She and her eyes, and the way she looked at the world, have always existed, and will always exist. There’s no explanation, not for the eyes or for the dream, because there is no why, out there on the astral plane.

It’s only our arrogance as rational animals that makes us believe there should be one.

The Wider World

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We come into this world utterly dependent, and (if we are fortunate enough to grow up in a stable home), the attention we get makes us the center of the universe. As toddlers, we are taught the proper ways to interact with the other humans, but to us, they exist mostly as extensions of ourselves; we don’t conceptualize their separate lives much. How old are we when we start understanding that there’s a world full of people with their own lives and their own concerns, same as us? When do we realize that while the vast majority of that world has nothing to do with us personally, we are part of it nevertheless?

A few years ago, I was back in my hometown, in the neighborhood around the church we attended while I was growing up. As I walked outside and all around the hulking brick structure, built in 1916, I felt a connection to something essential, foundational, something that went back to the earliest time, time I cannot actually remember. The church was the first public place I ever went to, as a baby. Other than maybe Grandma’s house, it was the first place other than my own home that I could recognize by sight. I was not able to get inside that day, but it didn’t matter. I remember it, dark wood, creaking floors, narrow stairwells.

My first elementary school is just down the street from the church. I say “is,” even though it was badly damaged in a 1973 fire and razed not long after. I still see it there, and same as the church, I can still walk it. (I once wrote, “[I]n my memory, perspective is distorted—ceilings are a mile high, hallways are yards wide, and I’m a tiny creature looking up from very close to the floor. Which, in fact, I was.”) I attended kindergarten, first grade, and half of second grade there, September 1965 through December 1967. And it was there that the realization of being part of a wider world began to begin.

I remember not really realizing it. One day in kindergarten, I got on the wrong bus after class because a teacher told me to. I knew it was the wrong bus, but I didn’t say anything, because to the extent that I understood my relationship to the wider world on that day, I knew this: it is a teacher’s function to tell you what to do, so you do it, and you don’t question it. There must have been a reason, I thought. That she might just be wrong did not compute.

(I think I’ve told the story before, but if not, it had a happy ending: after a long journey far into the unfamiliar wilds of Green County, I was the last kid left on the bus. As I recall it, the driver knew Mother and Dad and where I lived, and he was able to deliver me home.)

Not long ago, I playlisted the Hot 100 from the first week of February, 1967, and I went around with those songs in my head for a few days. At the same time, I looked through some old newspapers from the spring of that year. And I think it was probably then—the winter and early spring of 1967—that I started realizing the size and complexity of the world beyond our house, the farm, Grandma’s house, Immanuel EUB Church, and Lincoln School. The Monroe Evening Times itself, which arrived in the mail at our house every day but Sunday, would have told me so. (I became a reader because Mother and Dad were readers, so I would have seen them with the newspaper and wanted to read it myself.)

I was also beginning to absorb songs of the moment, involuntarily but surely enough for them to bring back that time today: “Georgy Girl” and “Nashville Cats” and “Music to Watch Girls By” and “Winchester Cathedral” and “My Cup Runneth Over,” from Mother and Dad’s radios, on the kitchen counter and in the barn. It’s been too long to say how, or whether, I assimilated the songs into the wider world I was building myself into at that moment. Listening to them today, they feel more like evidence of a process than part of that process, but I don’t know. If, in the winter and early spring of 1967, the radio was helping make me into who I would become, it wouldn’t be the last time.