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Monday, December 04, 2023

Songs of '83: "Karma Chameleon"

Culture Club, with their lead singer Boy George, were already a thoroughly familiar presence on American radio by this point of 1983. Their debut album, 1982's Kissing to Be Clever, managed to land four Top Ten hit on the Billboard charts during 1983 ("Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," "Time," "I'll Tumble 4 Ya," and "Church of the Poison Mind"). Boy George's ostentatious--and for the time, comparatively outrageous--androgyny made Culture Club the poster children, and a target, for every parent and pundit who insisted upon Making Their Views Known about this dangerous "new wave" of music escaping the clubs and poisoning American middle and high schools everywhere. (Years later, in his book The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom negatively compared George's androgynous impact on popular culture to Mick Jagger's, suggesting that the former wouldn't last; given that the down-to-three-permanent-members Rolling Stones just released a new album, I suppose you could argue he was right?) 

One of the weird things about all this, in retrospect, is that Culture Club were a pretty conventional pop band, all things considered. Their reliance upon synths and other technological club beats was fairly minimal, and while they soaked up the New Romantic and post-glam rock vibe of acts like late 1970s David Bowie, they also loved American R&B and country music--they even had guitars, for heaven's sake (take that, Human League)! "Karma Chameleon," the lead single of their second album, Colour by Numbers, a goofy little tune about--appropriately enough--changeableness and adaptation, ended up being their single biggest hit in both the UK and America. 40 years ago today, it premiered on the Billboard charts--and this time, there was no Michael Jackson or The Police standing in its way, preventing from going all the way to Number One.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Songs of '83: "The Politics of Dancing"

I'm so happy this song made my list; it's one my favorite, perhaps my very favorite, ridiculous and awesome New Wave tune. The London band Re-Flex didn't have a very long life; they had some intriguing interactions early on with Thomas Dolby, Level 42, and other artists and bands that navigated the new world of 1980s pop better than they did, but hey, not every musical outfit is destined for greatness. One-hit-wonderness, though, which they achieved with this single that entered the Billboard charts 40 years ago today and went on to be a Top Twenty hit? And, of course, had a wonderful video that mixes roller-skating with a Cold War spy thriller? That's not a bad fate at all, says I.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Songs of '83 Special: "Sunday Bloody Sunday"

Forget Michael Jackson, forget Prince, forget David Bowie, forget Duran Duran, forget The Eurythmics, forget The Police--for many, many, many of my Gen X peers, there is only song of 1983--and only one performance of that song--that can really tell the pop music story of that year. That's this one, right here. It's not part of my memories of that year though, except perhaps retroactively. So, like with Modern English's "I Melt With You," a little off-Billboard charts explanation is necessary.

I grew up in Spokane, Washington--though future NCAA powerhouse Gonzaga University is located there, it's not a college town, and the radio that I listened to growing up was mainstream pop and rock. By 1983, for all the reasons I've laid out in previous posts, the cosmopolitan and technological and stylistic post-punk and post-disco and multi-racial changes that had been building for years in the clubs of UK and in a few select big cities in North America were finally overwhelming institutional resistance (such as on MTV) and getting onto Top 40 American radio--but that still left a huge artistic ferment that wasn't being heard or seen by your average teen-age radio-listener across America. 1983 also was the year that "underground" or "alternative" or "college" radio really began to be a major profit-making market in the U.S., with R.E.M. and Violent Femmes and more all releasing their first albums that year. And then there was U2's breakthrough album War. Their classic song, "Sunday Bloody Sunday," was released in the UK and elsewhere earlier during that same year, but all that was unknown to me.

I have friends from Spokane around my age who insisted they knew about and were serious fans of U2 and this album, at the same time I was still listening to Thriller and Synchronicity. I grant that they must be telling the truth, but it's hard for me to know exactly how, since there's no way "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was getting much airplay in Spokane in 1983, given that it initially wasn't even released as a single in the U.S. (and War's lead single, "New Years Day," released in the UK and elsewhere in Europe earlier in the year, never even broken the top 50 on the American Billboard charts). But somehow or another, the power of this song--and specifically, the performance of the song which U2 gave at the Red Rocks Ampitheatre near Denver, Colorado on June 5, 1983--could not be contained. That absolutely electric performance--which reflected as well as any other recorded performance of theirs the crazy mix of messy messianic intensity and brilliantly clean sounds which characterized the first stage of U2's fame--was filmed and edited and released to the world, officially, on the concert film U2 Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky in 1984. Unofficially though, on November 21, 1983, 40 years ago today, the band released an 8-track live recording of their 1983 tour, using the same title. And to promote that album, the video from Red Rocks of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was made available (even though the audio of the song synced to that video was actually one recorded in Germany in August of that year). And that video just blew up. I remember seeing it on Friday Night Videos, perhaps sometime late in 1983, but more likely early 1984. Anyway, I had no idea who U2 were, though I think I may have identified them with a band named on some pins that a friend of my older sister (a high school junior at the time--practically a real grown-up!) wore. But that may be just a reconstruction; in all likelihood, I probably just thought I was watching some crazy experimental live recording from some cool but totally marginal indie band. And I guess, in a sense, I was right. It was years before I put it all together with my other pop memories, and realized what I'd missed (or rather, misunderstood).

Oh well. As for the song itself, I don't know when "Sunday Bloody Sunday" finally got airplay on Top 40 radio stations. Maybe it never did! Maybe, instead, it went straight from being a college radio favorite to a classic rock station standard. A strange journey one of U2's most famous songs. But regardless, even though it really doesn't fit into what I remember coming out of my radio during 1983, I had to put it somewhere. So here it is everyone. Enjoy your Thanksgiving, and your own U2 memories; mine are, however retroactive, very good indeed.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Song's of '83: "That's All"

Early 1980s Phil Collins and Genesis receive far more critical crap than they deserve, at least if one takes into consideration what they were going through at the time. They were a fine--maybe not Yes-level, but still, a major--progressive rock bank all through the 1970s, never having much impact on the American radio market but selling tons of records and tickets all across the UK and parts of Europe. Then came the departure of lead vocalist and resident weirdo-genius Peter Gabriel, followed by the departure of lead guitarist Steve Hackett. And then Phil Collins, emerging as lead vocalist while continuing on as drummer for the remaining threesome, discovers both drum machines and his own immense--if very pop-oriented--melodic sensibility, and over a period of a few years becomes both a massive radio sensation (thanks to his first solo album, Face Value) and nearly omnipresent as a studio musician in both the UK and America (he played the drums on last week's "In the Mood"). My favorite Genesis work is what they produced when they were right in the midst of working through all those transformations: And Then There Were Three is wonderful, for example, and looms large in my reconstructed memories of rock radio from 1978. But after five more years of adjustments passed, Genesis had become a straightforward, and efficient, pop machine, for better or worse. Collins was determined to kick off their 1983 album, titled simply Genesis, with a Beatlesesque pop song, complete with him purposefully imitating Ringo Starr's fills on the album's lead single, "That's All." Premiering on American radio 40 years ago this week, this song became their first Top Ten hit in America, to be followed by many, many more. The fact that, as far as pop songs go, it's nice but pretty much entirely disposable is, perhaps, sadly, part of the point.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Songs of '83: "In the Mood"

Far more than last week's fun rock tune from Yes, and far more than next week's entry from yet another 70s outfit that went pop in the 1980s, this week's song--the, in my opinion, endlessly captivating pop-funk-via-hard-rock-via-synth-and-drum-machine song "In the Mood," by Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant--is one that truly stands the test of time. It wasn't the first cut off his second solo album, nor his biggest solo hit ("Big Log" takes the title for both of those, a song that I've always found somewhat pretentious and only middling at best), but I say it's his best solo work--and this is my list of my memories, so what I say goes. The strange fantasia video for the song, mixing pastoral images with hammy 1983 beat-boxing, just captures how inventive, how creative, Plant could be as an artist, sometimes. (The fact that a country version of song subsequently became a stable of his late career concerts provides even more evidence, as if any were necessary.) Anyway, enjoy.

Monday, November 06, 2023

Songs of '83: "Owner of a Lonely Heart"

This week, and for the next two weeks to come, the songs which cracked into the American radio mainstream 40 years ago represented something that has only appeared a few times so far on this list: majors bands and performers that had achieved commercial success by producing the sort of songs which got airplay under the pop rules which obtained in the 1960s and the 1970s, now playing by a newly evolving set of expectations, ones much more technology-dependent and much more cosmopolitan in outlook. Journey and The Kinks nonetheless pushed ahead into the 1980s by doing what had always worked for them before; Styx, by contrast, attempted a synth-pop rock opera; David Bowie kind of crystalized all the transformations of 1983 even while perhaps not fully embracing them. 

And Yes, the first of our three 1970s dinosaurs, and arguably the most influential progressive rock band of them all? They came back together, after having disbanded in 1981 (having decided, reasonably enough, that their artistic moment had passed), and brought with them into the studio the two Trevors: Trevor Rabin, a rock guitarist whose musical sensibilities fit in well with the way post-disco develops were encouraging rock music to change, and Trevor Horn, a singer-turned-producer who had worked briefly with Yes before, while at the same time making the new electronic sound essential to British popular music, through such bands as The Buggles, ABC, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and later the Art of Noise. The re-integration of the significantly changed band--though at the last minute, Jon Anderson, Yes's founder and former lead vocalist was convinced to come back on board--was hardly without tension, but it produced a sleek, sharp, utterly of-the-moment Cold War rock album, whose lead single, "Owner of a Lonely Heart" entered the American Billboard charts this week in 1983, and by January of the following year was a #1 hit. Was it the Kafkaesque video that did it? Perhaps. In Reagan's America, in a year of nuclear false alarms and talk of lasers in space, the visual expression of Yes's pop-rock alchemy was on the nose.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Songs of '83: "Holiday"

I was never a huge Madonna fan, especially not at first. That was almost certainly at least partly due to my teenage Mormon suspicion of her: that she was one of those "bad girls" that are to be avoided. Madonna herself surely would have entirely endorsed my response, circa late 1983, when she finally--after years of studying dance and networking at clubs and pitching herself (with more and more success as the 1970s turned to the 1980s) as a backup singer all around New York City--made it on to mainstream American pop radio. Whether it was her own Catholic background or the socially conservative religious or cultural hang-ups of literally anyone else, she delightedly (and, of course, strategically; she's always been a savvy self-marketer) figured how to flaunt her disregard for us squares, stylistically, sexually, or otherwise. In that sense, "Holiday," the first cut from her debut album to make it onto the Billboard pop charts (debuting 40 years ago this week), was entirely appropriate: her whole oeuvre has always been about selling an image of getting away and taking a break, "just one day out of life."

"Holiday" is a pretty lame song, all things considered, just as the original video shot for it was (really it was more a dance audition than a video). Later cuts from her first album were better ("Borderline," for example, is simply a terrific pop song), and I enjoyed Madonna' stuff on the radio well enough. But it probably wasn't until I watched the tremendous documentary Paris is Burning, focused on "voguing" and the underground LGBTQ ballroom scene in New York City in general, that I started to view Madonna's choreographic skill, her cosmopolitan vision, and dedication to what came to be called "dance-pop" with some respect. Yes, she's an operator, no doubt about that. But in her own way, she's an artist too, one who was for years was determined to master, to lift up--or to rip off--whatever added to the liberatory power and delirious fun of cutting loose on the dance floor and in front of the mic. In that spirit, here's Madonna at the height of her powers, during the (regularly protested and condemned as "satanic" by Pope John Paul II!) Blonde Ambition tour. Put your troubles down, everyone; it's time to celebrate.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Songs of '83: "In a Big Country"

Big Country's "In a Big Country" debuted on the Billboard charts and American pop radio 40 years ago this week. The story of Big Country's origin was, like so many other post-punk UK outfits which emerged far from London's clubs, one of desperate experimentation--in this case, Stuart Adamson playing around on an effects pedal and an electronic bow and discovering a way to make guitars sound like bagpipes. Leaving behind the punk scene entirely, and connecting with a couple of studio musicians skilled in creating a 1970s classic rock sound (Big Country's drummer and bassist had both played with the Who's Pete Townshend on his terrific solo album Empty Glass), Adamson brought Big County together in 1981. Their first album got some decent airplay around the UK--but it was this goofy, utterly delightful video, featuring Adamson and his bandmates treasure hunting (and being hunted in turn) across Scotland, that gave the band their one hit in the U.S. The subsequent story of Big Country is not an entirely pleasant one--but for American radio-listeneres like me, they made 1983 a lot more fun.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Songs of '83: "Rockit"

I'm pretty certain I never heard Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" on the radio in 1983. Its presence in my memory, and its presence on this list (it was actually a released single, but it never even made it to the Top Fifty, cresting at #71 on the Billboard chart this week in October, 40 years ago), is entirely a result of Friday Night Videos, which played it constantly. I can only presume that in the months following Michael Jackson and other Black artists breaking MTV's informal racial line, the push was strong for other platforms to make up for lost time--and this crazy, artsy, funky video certainly qualifies. I have no idea how Hancock himself regards this recording today, but for a White kid starting high school far away from any college scenes or jazz clubs, it got stuck in my mind as a bit of a revelation.

Monday, October 09, 2023

Songs of '83: "Heart and Soul"

There are multiple major radio stars from 1983 that, for a variety of reasons, I haven't highlighted, and won't highlight, on this list. Toto's biggest selling and most famous single, "Africa," hit #1 on the Billboard charts in February, and was unavoidable for much of the year--but it had been released months earlier, and I count it as a 1982 song. Billy Joel's An Innocent Man was released in August of 1983, and had four Top Twenty hits--but ultimately, the vibe of the Piano Man just doesn't fit with what I think 1983 really meant in terms of pop music trends. And so forth: Elton John, The Fixx, Bryan Adams, Bob Seeger and the Silver Bullet Band: all very much in the radio mix during this year, but they're not making my personal cut. But how could I, how could anyone, ignore the biggest, slickest, hardest-working White guy pop bar band of the era? No one could, and I'm sure not.

"Heart and Soul," the first single from Sports, hit the Top 40 four decades ago this week, and with it Huey Lewis and The News began a streak that lasted for nearly five years; with only one exception (1984's "Walking on a Thin Line"), every single they released until late 1988 became a Top Ten Billboard hit. Looking back over the decades, Huey Lewis has commented that the band, by the time they came to the end of their run, had become better musicians than they'd been back in their heyday, when the goal--their only goal, really--was to orchestrate in the studio whatever radio-friendly hooks their blusey-but-not-really mix of guitars and keyboards and drums and harmonica allowed. I never saw them live (one of my major musical regrets, to be honest), but I've heard from multiple friends who did that their shows were loose and loud and awesome--and also perhaps never quite as kick-butt as their recordings. It's interesting that once they hit their peak and the years passed, they started playing around more, releasing albums of doo-wop and soul music--but never letting their formula go entirely. It worked for them for years, and it was certainly working for them here.

Monday, October 02, 2023

Songs of '83: "Major Tom (Coming Home)"

There were three German-speaking pop artists who had major hits on American radio in 1983. The 40th anniversary for one of them has already past; I'm going to come back to it later this year, for reasons that I'll explain at the time. Another, the biggest splash by a German-language pop song on the Billboard chart all year, won't have its turn in the spotlight for a couple more months. So this week we have the third entry: a witty bit of synthpop from Peter Schilling, a musician whose love of electronica always shaded into science-fiction--and in David Bowie's 1969 "Space Oddity," with its story of the eponymous astronaut stranded alone in his tin can far above the world, Schilling found his muse. He recorded the song in German--"Major Tom (völlig losgelöst)," meaning "completely detached"--and released it in January of 1983; it became a huge club hit throughout Western Europe, and the pressure was on to record and release and English-language version. When he finally finished and released the English translation, it climbed to the Top Twenty in the U.S. (and Number 1 in Canada), guaranteeing his place as one of the great one-hit wonders of the era. (Major Tom himself, of course, kept coming back again and again.)

Monday, September 25, 2023

Songs of '83: "Love is a Battlefield"

Pat Benatar was, in retrospect, one of those driven talents that probably would have found a way to achieve success on the radio no matter what her stylistic environment. As it was, she came to the clubs of New York City in the late 1970s with the rock of Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones on her mind--not exactly the style of the time. But her vocal chops--especially once backed up by the guitar work and the producing talent of Neil Giraldo, her musical partner (and husband) for more than four decades--were not to be denied. "Love is a Battlefield," which first landed on the Billboard charts 40 years ago this week, was her single biggest radio hit, and a huge MTV smash--turning a three-minute single into a five-minute television drama, complete with a dance break, was still a relatively new thing in those early, post-Michael Jackson years. It's not my favorite Benatar song (that would be "Shadows of the Night," probably), but you can't deny: it rocks.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Songs of '83: "Cum On Feel the Noiz"

Journey, Sammy Hagar, Def Leppard, ZZ Top, Loverboy: as this list has always insisted, it's not as though the breakthrough into mainstream radio by the European clubs' multi-racial, gender-bending, drum-machine-and-synthesizers, post-disco and post-punk pop music somehow completely drove from the Billboard charts the sort of guitar-driven rock music which was performed and consumed almost entirely by young straight white men (and their female companions). In that spirit, I give you Quiet Riot's cover of the English glam-rock hit from the 1970s,"Cum On Feel the Noiz." Released 40 years ago this week, it is arguably the most influential American heavy metal single of all time, basically because it was the first that really mattered, commercially speaking: the first American hard rock band to have a Top Ten single (beating Van Halen, beating Mötley Crüe, beating Metallica, all of which were better bands, it goes without saying), and the first heavy metal album to go to number one. Was I a head-banger? No, not particularly. But did I crank this sucker up to 11 when it came on the radio while I was learning to drive that old white pick-up truck my family had? I did indeed.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Songs of '83: "All Night Long (All Night)"

Of all the Black artists I've highlighted so far in this review of what I see as the year when all the new technological and stylistic and sexual possibilities of post-punk, post-disco pop music finally broke through to mainstream American radio, Lionel Richie has to be the one with the smoothest career arc, the one for whom these transformations seemed the most natural and effortless. Michael Jackson was the one who burst down the door to a new kind of pop musical (and video) stardom; Prince blew a hole in the wall to make his own way to the charts; Eddy Grant slipped in through a side door no one had noticed; Al Jarreau was following his own smooth jazz path and couldn't care less what pop radio thought of him; and Donna Summer, the Queen of Disco, simply ramped up her songs' vocal and guitar power and kept on pushing on those pop barricades. But Richie, a lead singer and primary song-writer for the Commodores, the smoothest of all of Motown's 1970s acts? The now-independent balladeer (he officially left the Commodores in late 1982, after the success of his first solo album) just sailed on through (pun intended). 

I don't mean to suggest that Richie didn't have a lot of talent and didn't work hard; both of those things are true. But an artist determined to sweat it out in order to achieve musical and lyrical perfection he wasn't. The Afro-Caribbean rhythms and sonic backgrounds to "All Night Long," like several other hits off his second album, are solid additions to the final mix; the lyrics which accompany them are also--as Richie himself later admitted--complete gibberish. (He apparently wanted to hire a translator, but ran out of time and/or money, and so went ahead anyway.) But maybe Richie's music simply embodied exactly his ethos? Music is supposed to be fun, everyone; so quit trying to make art, and just dance. "All Night Long" hit the radio in mid-September, 40 years ago, and nothing was going to stop it from making it all the way to number one.

Monday, September 04, 2023

Songs of '83: "Suddenly Last Summer"

Exactly 40 years ago, during the Labor Day weekend of 1983, a slight, synth-heavy tune by The Motels, with undercurrents both sinister and sweet, appeared on American radio. It would eventually crack the Billboard Top Ten, but far beyond that particular accomplishment, did any artist or band, throughout all of the 1980s, ever give us a better song for the end of summer, especially that summer, the summer when we were 15 or thereabouts, listening to the radio, and daydreaming, excitedly but also fearfully, about romance and sex and growing up and the future? I'm doubtful. 

Monday, August 28, 2023

Songs of '83: "True"

My sister had a huge poster of Spandau Ballet, with the word "True" in dark letters printed across the bottom, up on her bedroom wall sometimes in 1983-1984. I wouldn't be surprised at all if at least one other heterosexual female and/or gay male person out there reading this had one as well. I don't recall when I first heard the term "New Romantic"--I'm not sure it really had any currency in the U.S., even in those few cities which had the sort of clubs or college radio stations that paid attention to the multi-racial, gender-bending, post-disco and post-punk New Wave coming from the UK--but when I finally did learn it, there were exactly two faces that came to mind: Roxy Music's Bryan Ferry, and that singer from Spandau Ballet, which Wikipedia informs me is Tony Hadley (who is also, apparently, a big fan of Margaret Thatcher, so hey, I guess it takes all kinds). Using their synths to produce a lush, sweeping sound, "True" debuted on the Billboard charts and American radio 40 years ago this month, beginning a slow climb over the months to come towards a comfortable Top Ten showing, a featured place in John Hughes's Sixteen Candles, and of course, my sister's (and probably many others') bedroom walls. Enjoy the slow dance, everyone.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Songs of '83: "Everyday I Write the Book"

Elvis Costello looms large in my musical memories entirely due to the college radio I listened to during my years at BYU (and the friends I made who directed me towards it). In terms of the history of the musical transformations I've been talking about here in association with the trends which came together in 1983, Costello was a pioneer. One of the most original songwriters and rock performers to come out of the immediate post-punk pop stew which was bubbling across the UK and in certain big cities in North America, every album and single he released from 1977 to 1980 were major radio and critical hits--outside the U.S., that is. In the U.S., his music and its critical acclaim was known, but not by radio-listening kids outside of the college towns and the metropolitan clubs like me. With one exception, that is: this song, his first to make it on the Billboard charts. Deputing 40 years ago today, it was a modest hit: it cracked the Top 40, but not much more than that. Still, it was enough that when friends introduced me to "Beyond Belief" or "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding?" or "Radio Radio" (one of my 1978 songs, by the way) I was able to say--oh yeah, that guy!

Costello is one of six artists whose music got my attention and got stuck in my memory in both my reconstruction of 1978 and of 1983: Journey, Jackson Brown, Talking Heads, and The Police are others (with one more yet to come). Of all of them, Costello had the least successful time navigating the Billboard charts. Why did this song make it? Maybe Americans, even by 1983, still couldn't get enough Charles and Diana.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Songs of '83: "Total Eclipse of the Heart"

The unstoppable pop masterpiece/monstrosity known as "Total Eclipse of the Heart," sung by the Welsh troubadour Bonnie Tyler and written by that genius of post-disco overproduction, Jim Steinman (who also gave us "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)" and "Making Love Out of Nothing At All"), began its irresistible climb up the Billboard charts this week 40 years ago, eventually making it to #1 and staying there for the entire month of October. What can you say? It's...a lot. In fact it's so much that, as some forgotten genius in the early years of YouTube realized, you really have to take it literally to take it all in. Nominally just a love ballad, it actually does have stuff to say--not coherently, to be sure, but still, it's there--about all the sexual and stylistic transformations changing American radio that year. Too bad we had to wait a few decades before someone figured out to show us that inner truth.

Monday, August 07, 2023

Songs of '83: "Hot Girls in Love"

Not every 1983 hit partook of the racially, technologically, sexually, stylistically cosmopolitan revolutions which broke out of the major cities of Europe and the East Coast and into the mainstream of American radio that year. Some were just bar bands that managed to connect with the right producer and come up with something that lots of people enjoyed playing really loud. In the spirit, welcome Loverboy, the artists responsible for some of the, in my opinion, least interesting videos that ever achieved heavy rotation on MTV and Friday Night Videos. I will say one thing, though, for "Hot Girls in Love," Loverboy's biggest hit up until that point, which hit its Billboard peak this week 40 years ago: it's the only video I can remember seeing broadcast during a church dance being shut down in the middle of its being played. The crotch shots? The cleavage? Nope, it's the fact that the actress clearly (if silently) voices "Shit!" when she realizes her car is out of gas. Standards: they must be maintained.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Songs of '83: "Burning Down the House"

Talking Head's greatest radio hit, which debuted on the Billboard charts 40 years ago this week, both is and isn't a creature of 1983. The review in Rolling Stone called it a song that "obliterates the thin line separating arty white pop music and deep black funk," and there's so much truth to that. Talking Heads--thanks primarily to the weirdly misanthropic musical genius of David Byrne, but it's not like the other great musicians in that band (Chris Frantz, Jerry Frantz, and most of all Tina Weymouth) didn't contribute a lot as well--is one of those relatively few American bands that have become almost mythological. A bunch of upper-middle-class art students enraptured by New York City's punk scene, who began to transcend punk with a cosmopolitan, racially and psychologically and technologically disparate mix of influences, styles, beats, and lyrical pretensions almost from the moment they began playing in punk clubs in the mid- to late 1970s. (Arguably they were post-punk before anyone else even realized the scene was over.) 

Central to their musical accomplishment, as I wrote in my first entry about the radio revolution--or realization--of 1983 in the United States, was a kind of multiracial futurism, what Byrne called an "'American cool-African-futuristic-trash-aesthetic." No wonder the sounds and rhythms of the multiracial and sexually diverse discos appealed to them. The story of "Burning Down the House" is well known, beginning with drummer Frantz's attendance at a Parliament-Funkadelic show which got him shouting "burn down the house!" during a later rehearsal jam with the other Talking Heads. But honestly, if it wasn't P-Funk's awesome energy, it probably just would have been something else that eventually inspired them to come up with a bit of pop alchemy that Top Ten American radio couldn't contain. Their attraction to mixing arty, partly-synthesized beats with funky, sexy, spiritual Black tunes wasn't a new thing; they'd had a minor hit with their cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" back in 1978, a pop concoction which in retrospect shows that the Heads were going to be as important to defining where post-punk and post-disco radio would eventually go as anything David Bowie, the Police, Prince, or any other major artist of 1983 did. That line which Rolling Stone mentioned was bound to be broken by the band, and with this masterpiece 40 years ago they did.

You can enjoy the art-house video to the song, of course, but much better is the live rendition captured by Jonathan Demme in Stop Making Sense, easily the greatest concert video over made. 1983's shadow is a long one indeed.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Songs of '83: "Sharp Dressed Man"

This fast and smooth driving bit of accelerated Texas blues guitar rock, which entered the Billboard charts 40 years ago this coming week, was the greatest of ZZ Top's Eliminator hits. It didn't chart the highest, nor have the best video; "Legs" takes that honor, which bizarrely wasn't released as a single until 1984, after the album had been out more than a year. But with "Sharp Dressed Man," front man Billy Gibbons's fascination with the technological innovations that he'd heard coming out of European clubs--he was apparently particularly taken with Depeche Mode and OMD, both of which were still a couple of years away from making an impact on American radio-- was undeniable. He sped up the drum machines, used synthesizers to create a floor of sound beneath the bass, and the result is an album--and especially this single--of super-charged boogie rock. That Gibbons was an open-minded musician is well known (his fascination with Prince's guitar playing makes a great story), but the fact that these long-bearded Texas bluesmen knew a good thing when the 1980s and MTV delivered it to them deserves special applause.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Songs of '83: "Lawyers in Love"

The fate of 1970s Laurel Canyon-style singer-songwriters in the 1980s was diverse. Some (England Dan, Paul Davis) went country; some refused to change until world music woke them up to new possibilities (Paul Simon); some focused on soundtracks (Carole King). But others simply adapted their sound, making use of new technologies while following their same muses, thus producing much the same music, only a little brighter, a little tighter, and a little more pop. This is James Taylor, Carly Simon--and most of all, Jackson Browne.

Browne's contrarian folkish sensibility always made room for the enhanced capacities of rock and roll, as the rueful, rocking genius in the lyrics and orchestration of "The Load-Out/Stay" from 1978 makes clear. But I don't think he ever got better than "Lawyers in Love," my absolute favorite Browne composition, which hit the Billboard charts 40 years ago this week. The song reflects both the musical style and the political moment of 1983 with a whimsy and a satire that I think has rarely been equaled by any artist with any kind of pretensions to seriousness. The video is, admittedly, a weird mess, but if anyone in the 1980s came up with a sharper Cold War line than "eating from TV trays / tuned into Happy Days / waiting for World War III while Jesus slaves," I don't know what it is.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Bernie Sanders, Patrick Deneen, and a “Left Conservative” Solution

[This is a version of a joint review of new books by Patrick Deneen and Bernie Sanders which I have written for Current, and which follows up on my previous, more in-depth review of Deneen's book here.]

Over the past few months, two books calling for a radical transformation of America’s socio-economic and political status quo have been published. One of the was written by a man long associated with conservative arguments and publications, but really isn’t, in my judgment, a conservative book at all; the other was written by a man long associated with democratic socialism, but his socialist arguments incorporate, in my view, a conservative sentiment which the first book frequently invokes but provides few concrete arguments in support of. Insofar as actual intellectual arguments are concerned, the first book, Patrick Deneen’s Regime Change, is the better one. But if one genuinely wishes to understand and develop responses to the harms of state capitalism and liberal statism, responses which are grounded "conservatively" in the collective achievements and socio-economic struggles which actually exist today, then Bernie Sanders’s much more conventional book, It’s Okay to Be Angry About Capitalism, is, I think, nonetheless the wiser one. 

Deneen’s book extends upon his earlier work Why Liberalism Failed, a book that received much praise for its description of the philosophical flaws of liberal individualism which have led to social discontent and cultural breakdown. Deneen ended Why Liberalism Failed suggesting the need for “patient encouragement of new forms of community that can serve as havens in our depersonalized political and economic order,” which situated that book firmly within a long tradition of conservative complaints about and localist responses to our liberal order. Regime Change, however, dismisses with that Burkean prudential sentiment; embracing the idea that “conservatism” (at least the conservatism of the 19th and 20th centuries) partakes of liberalism’s sins, Deneen insists that the “postliberal” future he thinks inevitable requires an “epic theory” which would challenge the roots of the modern order entirely, so as to recover or rebuild something more authentically natural. 

A central component of the epic theory laid out in Regime Change is a wholesale rejection of the egalitarianism which has evolved over the centuries since the Protestant Reformation, having transformed (in ways Deneen presents as almost entirely negative) the manner in which we moderns mostly understand such ancient concepts as “democracy” or “rights.” For Deneen, the demos deserves respect, but not the right to actually, directly, govern itself. Deneen’s more natural political order would be a postliberal in the sense that it would unapologetically look to the cultivation of an elite “few” who, having been trained in the responsibility to exemplify for the “many” proper rulership, would be able to establish laws that reflected collective norms—both cultural and economic (though, on the basis of the pages spent exploring them in RC, much more the former than the latter)—rather than individual interests as manifest through some kind of social contract. The resulting “mixed regime”—meaning one that would balance the ambitions and abilities of the few with the many’s presumed longing for stability—would, in his view, be able to address the challenges of collective life in a manner both virtuous and non-alienating, unlike what liberalism has given us. He calls this “common good conservatism,” but just what it would be conserving—aside from those particular moral and cultural customs which Deneen thinks the working classes ought to be living in accordance with, even when they, in fact, choose not to—is unclear. 

There is a great deal more in Deneen’s rich—and I think dangerous—book, but that is the gist of its ambitious, revolutionary, and decidedly unconservative, at least dispositionally speaking, argument. Reviewers more aligned with America's conservative movements than myself (Jon D. Schaff, Adam Smith, Ross Douthat, and others), operating with the assumption that, as Smith put it, “the question is not whether there will be an elite, but whether it will be a good one,” are less troubled than I by Deneen’s willingness to invoke an idealized natural hierarchy of a pre-Protestant Reformation, pre-liberal Europe as his postliberal guide. But however seriously one takes Deneen’s diagnosis, the fact remains that he sees himself accomplishing this attack on our present managerialist and statist status quo in the name of what he holds to be the common interests of the people, something which “aristopopulism” is necessary to achieve. 

It’s Okay to Be Angry About Capitalism is similarly filled with ambitious, radical ideas, but it has no such revolutionary gist to it, at least not one which is laid out in such a way as to organize the book’s somewhat rambling arguments. Sanders is, of course, a politician, not a theorist—but he is a politician who, over his career, done more to mainstream the idea that capitalism as it presently operates isn’t a natural or virtuous arrangement of affairs, and to therefore get broad numbers of not-otherwise-radical people to think critically about alternatives. As I wrote about Sanders before, “[Sanders’s] greatest accomplishment wasn’t helping make the Democratic party more comfortable with certain (re-named!) democratic socialist ideas but rather helping bring into the mainstream a fruitful mess of radicalisms, all of which are busy promoting their own alternative democratizing visions…. Bernie Sanders failed to win the presidency, but he didn’t fail to fertilize, with his words and actions, long moribund ideas in America.” It’s Okay to Be Angry shows off the fruit of such fertilization, taking on health care, Wall Street, college education, Fox News, and much more. Those looking for a thoughtful democratic socialist critique of the liberal capitalist state will not find one in the pages of Sanders’s book, especially since more than a third of the book is an interesting but not especially deep rehearsal of the greatest hits of Sanders’s political career and campaigns over the Trump years, and much of the rest reflects a progressive liberalism rather than something explicitly rooted in the visions of his hero, union leader and Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs. But a close reader will see, nonetheless, a focus on productive work which arguably brings a critical unity to Sanders’s case against the “oligarchs” and “billionaires” and the “über-capitalist system.” It is this focus which positions Sanders’s book as a wiser radical response to the problems of today than Deneen’s anti-egalitarian, “aristopopulist” suppositions. 

Deneen writes often in Regime Change about “the many” or “commoners” or “the working class,” at times criticizing them as “far less likely to exhibit certain kinds of virtues related to marriage, family, work, and criminality than the ‘elites’ that they often disdain,” yet nonetheless repeatedly positing them as a non-aspirant, non-managerial loadstone, “more likely to be grounded in the realities of a world of limits and natural processes, in tune with the cycle of life and rhythms of seasons, tides, sun and stars.” That is, Deneen presents those who do practical, material work for living as a static category, a necessary component within a healthy society, but not an actual agent within it. Whereas for Sanders, practical, material work—whether in a factory or a classroom or a farm or an office—is connected to an active democratic dignity, and directly contrasted to those financial elites whose wealth is tied to the flow of the economy itself, rather than to its productive results. Sanders writes, reflecting upon his youthful experience on a agricultural commune in Israel:  

Work, to a large degree, defines who we are, what our social status is, and who our friends are….I don’t pretend to understand everything about human nature but I believe that, very deep in the souls of most people, is a desire to be part of their community to and contribute to its well-being. People want to be productive and have a positive impact on the lives of their families….While the world has obviously changed a lot since that kibbutz was created in the 1930s and since I worked there in the 1960s, what has not changed is the sense of empowerment that grows with working people are treated not as “employees,” but as “owners” who share a responsibility for defining the scope and character of their jobs. The sense of community and worker-empowerment that existed there was something that I have never forgotten. It confirmed my view that there are many ways to organize workplaces, and that we have a responsibility to identity the models that respect workers as human beings, and allow them to realize their full potential….Whether someone is working on a farm, or in an automobile factory, hospital, or school, or delivering mail or writing a book, they want to know that what they do is meaningful and appreciated. They want to have a say about the nature of their work and how it is done….Is it really too much, in the twenty-first century, in the wealthiest country on earth, to begin creating an economy in which actually have some power over what they do for forty hours or more a week? 

Deneen is not entirely silent when it comes to how contemporary capitalism has engendered a financial globalism which has undermined the community-building power of workers, and thus contributed to their suffering. As part of the disruptions to the status-quo which he believes recovering a proper elite would necessitate, he mentions the importance of empowering unions, giving workers direct say on corporate boards (in the style of Germany’s Betriebsrat or workers councils), and using tariffs to slow outsourcing. But those few paragraphs pale beside the long sections devoted to attacking the moral individualism engrained in the policies of the liberal state, and the need to construct a postliberal elite that would model a community consciousness that would lift workers up. 

Sanders, by contrast, goes far beyond Deneen’s acknowledged need to strengthen unions and increase the presence of workers on corporate boards, pushing the radical idea of a social reconstruction of the deeply dysfunction distribution of working opportunities and wages in the wealthiest country in the world, something which Deneen, for all his talk about disrupting the system, never really considers. Sanders, when he can pull himself out of the legislative bubble filled with fights over climate change and infrastructure funding, is clear in wanting to make a full-employment economy America’s social ideal, by way of guaranteeing health care, investing in environmentally sustainable work, redistributing wealth, closely regulating financial actors, increasing taxes on powerful financial interests, easing the creation of worker cooperatives, and much more. 

Admittedly, his invocation of this ideal somethings draws him back into just reciting a laundry list of government programs, in classic progressive liberal statist fashion. But sometimes he is able to see beyond this; sometimes he is able to break through the partisan cant which has been second nature for him for more than 40 years, and talk about the goal of economic democracy—a change which he believes (I think correctly) would enable people within their families and communities to find themselves in alignment with a more virtuous “regime.” While not a religious man, Sanders’s collective vision of higher stage in the democratic evolution of capitalist state is, as I’ve noted elsewhere, downright Pentecostal: 

If we accept that the truth will set us free, then we need to face some hard truths about American oligarchs. This country has reached a point in its history where it must determine whether we truly embrace the inspiring words in our Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”….We have to decide whether we take seriously what the great religions of the world—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and others—have preached for thousands of years. Do we believe in the brotherhood of man and human solidarity? Do we believe in the Golden Rule that says each and every one of us should “do unto other as you would have them do unto you”? Or do we accept, as the prevailing ethic of our culture, that whoever has the gold rules—and that lying, cheating, and stealing are OK if you’re powerful enough to be able to get away with it? 

The condemnation of liberalism presented by Deneen and others, whatever its philosophical insight, leads many to assume that talk of democratic equality and rights is incompatible with presumably conservative concepts like “brotherhood” and “solidarity.” To the extent that competitive capitalism presumes that economically empowering individuals can only increase social alienation, and thus allowing corrupt elites impose their ideology upon us all, then Deneen’s prescription may make a dangerous degree of sense. 

But Sanders’s arguments, supported as they are by the example of higher levels of solidarity and public goods in social democratic societies around the world, point to a different way—a more “left” way. This way would be truer to Christopher Lasch’s belief in building a democracy of producers and citizens--a belief which also inspired the teacher, Wilson Carey McWilliams, to whom Deneen admits he is most indebted for his conception of conservatism. Maybe the conservative, or communitarian, value of fraternity is something that individuals, in all their liberal diversity, still can and do conceive and build and maintain, when the social and economic space to do so is offered to them to do; that’s the wise suggestion McWilliams’s daughter, the political theorist Susan McWilliams Barndt, makes in response to Deneen’s book. There are large differences between the content of Deneen’s and Sanders’s radical proposals, but maybe the biggest difference is simply that Sanders presumes that workers still build communities and traditions when socially and economically and democratically empowered to do so—whereas Deneen’s mixed regime seems to presume that such can only be delivered to them from above.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Songs of '83: "She Works Hard for the Money"

Thus far in this list, we've seen artists who made it on to American radio in 1983 who had absorbed and learned from the achievements of disco, and artists who had rejected and fled from those achievements, and even artists who had somehow just plain avoided that whole technological and stylistic revolution in popular music, especially in terms of gender and race. But what we haven't seen yet is what actual pop disco stars themselves did when their innovations and beats from the clubs and dance halls went, and were changed by going, thoroughly mainstream. (What about Michael Jackson, you're asking? Well, 1) he's a special case, as Thriller and the videos from it were kind of the originating cause célèbre of what 1983 meant in the first place; and 2) MJ's disco era was with the Jackson 5 anyway, Off the Wall excepted.)

In any case, the point is--you're Donna Summer, literally the Queen of Disco. You had no less than seven singles in the Top 10 of the Billboard charts between 1977 and 1980. Then, in an equally short period of time, half of pop radio in America decides that disco is way too manufactured and gay and Black to be tolerated, while at the same time a whole bunch of English bands start dominating urban markets, doing everything you and your people had been doing in the studio for years, only with even newer synths and drum machines. Plus, you're caught up in sticky lawsuits with your label. What do you do? You keep doing what you've always done, only maybe you get Musical Youth (yes, that Musical Youth) to add to the song's vocal power and, learning from what Quincy Jones did with Jackson on Thriller, you get Ray Parker, Jr. (yes, that Ray Parker, Jr.) to add some killer guitar licks. Come the summer of 1983, and suddenly America radio simply can't resist. "She Works Hard for the Money" becomes the first video by a Black female artist to go into regular rotation on MTV, and the rest is history.

Monday, July 03, 2023

Songs of '83: "It's a Mistake"

1983 was the year Men at Work finally fully grasped the American radio recognition and critical plaudits and huge money that they'd been steadily building towards for the previous three years; it was also the year they let it all go, never to remotely approach such popular success again. "It's a Mistake" is, in my opinion, their greatest pop achievement; it was also their last major radio hit. In less than a year, Men at Work's two albums that had earlier been released in the Australian market, and had had some success in the UK and Canada, were released in the U.S., to far greater success than they'd experienced on either side of the Atlantic or Pacific. As 1983 began, Men at Work already had two #1 Billboard hits under their belt, and by August they'd have two more Top Ten hits, including this one, which entered the Billboard charts 40 years ago this week. By the end of the year, they'd won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, and were beset by internal tensions that would lead the band to split up and never again achieve the kind of pop alchemy they'd enjoyed during that one magical year.

Men at Work weren't really New Wave, despite having picked up some cosmopolitan tricks and technologies from playing in the pubs around Melbourne. But simply because of the era, they were occasionally grouped in as part of the Second British (Commonwealth) Invasion. However you categorize them though, this song, written by Colin Hay, simply rocks, with Ron Strykert, the co-founder and lead guitarist of the band, providing on of my favorite guitar solos from any song released that whole year. Give it a listen, and see if you don't agree.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Songs of '83: "Stand Back"

For the first and only time in this list, a 1983 pop hit directly inspired by another, previous 1983 pop hit. Stevie Nicks was, of course, a creature of the California folk- and psychedelic-rock scene, and when she and her musical and romantic partner Lindsey Buckingham connected with the English band Fleetwood Mac, it resulted in one of the great alchemic meldings in pop musical history, creating an absolute radio juggernaut throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s. But while Fleetwood Mac absorbed a lot of styles in creating its rock sound, it was, despite its foundation in the English blues scene, pretty American, and pretty White. When Nicks, in January 1983, heard an early release of Prince's "Little Red Corvette," with those synthesizers and those funky, Black, post-disco techno-beats, she was inspired, and immediately found a tape recorder to put down a demo of what became "Stand Back." When she was able to get into the studio to record it in February, Prince himself came by to program the drum machine and work the synthesizer (though there is apparently some dispute over just who did what). The single was released and started climbing the Billboard charts in June--less than six months after its original inspiration. Who says pop stars can't work fast when they really want to?

Monday, June 19, 2023

Songs of '83: "The Safety Dance"

Last week, I labeled A Flock of Seagulls, when referencing what I think to have been their greatest pop achievement, as possibly the "most mocked" of all the synth-pop acts of the Second British Invasion. Well, that may require some qualification. Because in late June 40 years ago, "The Safety Dance"--a synth-pop confection that probably no one has ever taken seriously as a work of musical artistry, and which yet has achieved a kind of infectious meme-ability of what can only be called world-historical proportions--started its climb up the American Billboard charts. 

Men Without Hats was essentially a half-American, half-Canadian family band from Quebec, which went through a punk phase before shifting to New Wave in the very early 1980s, embracing synthesized keyboards and a musical aesthetic which was crowding disco out of the clubs in cosmopolitan Montreal at a time when, outside of a few venues in NYC and LA, it basically had no presence across the border. (The song itself technically reflects upon that early transition, since rather than sex, the lyrics are actually about the early progenitors of slamdancing and other post-punk styles mixing it up with those attempting to maintain disco's dominance in dance halls.) The song had such a long, ironically-but-kind-of-actually-beloved half-life that it wasn't unusual, by the mid-1980s, to sometimes here the extended dance version on ordinary pop radio, in the same way that, 10 or 20 years after that, it wasn't entirely surprising to see it referenced on Scrubs and South Park. I suppose it's the sort of tune which someone, somewhere, has surely referred to as a "postmodern masterpiece" (Google gives me nothing when I do that search, but I still believe). In any case, two things I can say with complete assurance: first, Renaissance Faires were never the same after the single's video; and second, "Pop Goes the World," from five years later, is their better song [ducks].

Monday, June 12, 2023

Songs of '83: "Wishing (If I Had a Phtograph of You)"

Climbing slowly up the Billboard charts in the wake of The Police's monster hit from last week, we have my favorite song by A Flock of Seagull's, probably the most-mocked of all the synth-pop bands that penetrated the America radio market. Their biggest hit in the U.S. was "I Ran (So Far Away)" from the year before, and the one they're best remembered for, if only ironically. But this week's radio memory from 1983, "Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)," is a gorgeous bit of synth-pop, overwhelmingly because of guitarist Paul Reynolds's echo and delay effects. (Honestly, when it comes to using the guitar to create sonic landscapes, Reynolds beats out U2's Edge, at least when judged on the basis of the work they'd accomplished by these respective points in their careers.) I read once that, besides mocking lead singer Mike Score's hair, AFoS were sometimes rundown by other synth-pop bands of the early 1980s for still making guitars such a big part of their sound. If so, they had the last laugh.

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Putting the Demos on a Pedestal

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

In the preface to Why Liberalism Failed, the manuscript of which “was completed three weeks before the 2016 presidential election,” Patrick Deneen wrote that “the better course”—at least for all those persuaded by his book’s arguments about the philosophical flaws, contradictions, and corruption of modern liberalism—“lies not in any political revolution but in the patient encouragement of new forms of community that can serve as havens in our depersonalized political and economic order” (WLF, 2018, pp. xiii, xv). That perspective reflected well the constellation of localist ideas which Deneen has contributed to over the years. By seeing in liberalism an affirmation of individualism and pluralism that invariably leads to the rise of a contractarian state, an economic materialism, and an attendant technocratic elite, all of which actually undermine the demos rather than empower it, the response by anyone concerned about the flourishing of democratic communities has to be focused on the local. WLF didn’t, in my view, engage seriously enough with the broad range of republican arguments which have similarly challenged the liberal order over the decades, making some of its conclusions too easily arrived at, but the questions it implicitly raised about local democracy along the way were valuable ones, and WLF received much balanced praise for articulating a particular kind of post-“fusionism” conservative discontent (even former president Barack Obama, while disagreeing with the book’s diagnoses, was apparently a fan).

Within a year of WLF’s publication though, Deneen appears to have changed his mind about pretty much all that. Writing in the preface of the paperback edition, Deneen explained: 

I know believe I was wrong to think that [the project of developing a political theory which would succeed philosophical liberalism] could take generations….Instead of imagining a far-off and nearly inconceivable era when the slow emergence of liberalism’s alternative might become fully visible from its long-burning embers, we find ourselves in a moment when “epic theory” becomes necessary….[I]n mere months—having seen the American political order assaulted by two parties that are in a death grip but each lacking the ability to eliminate the other, and observing the accelerating demolition of the liberal order in Europe—I now think that the moment for “epic theory” has come upon us more suddenly than we could have anticipated. Such moments probably always arrive before we think we are ready (WLF, 2019, pp. xxiii-xxiv).

The transition from “patient encouragement” to “epic theory” encapsulates well the thrust of Deneen’s new book, Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future (which is being officially released today). WLF was a good book, but Regime Change is a better one, and I think will be recognized as such—as well as one that will gain notoriety in a way that the earlier, more academic book mostly did not. Given Deneen’s new focus in RC, that notoriety may well be welcomed by him. Few books are actually “dangerous,” despite the paranoia which censorious activists, clerics, and politicians delight in spreading about them, but the epic—and profoundly unconservative, at least in any sense by which Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott, or Russell Kirk would have understood the term—reach of Deneen’s arguments absolutely crosses over into that territory. 

After all, when a book written in the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021, after hundreds of protestors confusedly but sincerely aimed to violently subvert the constitutional procedures of a presidential election, nonetheless speaks seriously of the need for a newer, better sort of elite to employ “raw assertion[s]” of “demotic power” to challenge American institutions, and blithely quotes Machiavelli praising “discord and division” in his Discourses on Livy, arguing (perhaps facetiously, perhaps not) that “mobs running through the streets” were actually a sign of the vitality of the Roman republic…well, “dangerous” seems to be a fit description (RC, pp. 164-165). Reading Regime Change, it is hard to avoid concluding that Deneen has run out of patience, at least when it comes to what he sees as the wreckage of our present condition. To build upon what Deneen wrote on the first anniversary of the Capitol attack, the ultimate aim of RC appears to be the development of a better, more radical elite, one that could guide the people, unlike former president Donald Trump, towards a “genuine populist revolution.”

The elites which Deneen’s epic theory invokes would be the products of what he calls “aristopopulism,” an elite committed not to the often false (as Deneen effectively documents throughout the book) egalitarianism supposedly as work in the managerial liberalism so prevalent in our late capitalist moment, but rather to what he considers to be a more accurate, classical understanding of “democracy.” On his reading of Aristotle, Polybius, and Aquinas, the regime which gives greatest credence to the needs and wishes of the people as a whole is one of mixed classes, in the classical “Great Chain of Being” sense. Under such a constitutional order, a virtuous elite would wield the responsibility to govern a community through the intentional writing and enforcing of laws, while the demos would articulate over time customs and norms which would have their own quasi-governing power, one which the elites, in their virtuous wisdom, would recognize and help sustain through positive law. Deneen strongly doubts that a direct reconstruction of such an arrangement would be possible through the corrupt institutions of the Western world today, dedicated as they are, according to him, to the social reproduction our progressive culture and globalized economy. Hence the need instead to be disruptive, and possibly even violent—Deneen speaks of the necessity of “the force of a threat from the popolo”—in changing the rules of the game. As he puts it, we must employ “Machiavellian means to achieve Aristotelian ends” (pp. 167, 185). 

The key philosophical assumption behind Deneen’s epic theorizing is his near-total rejection of egalitarianism as it has unfolded over the centuries of liberal modernity. Throughout the early sections of Regime Change, he uncomplicatedly stipulates as a natural fact the “ancient divide that pits the ‘few’ against the ‘many,’” a divide which he describes as “the ‘normal’ condition of politics”; it is, in his view, “an endemic political feature of the human condition” that “there is inevitable inequality in the world,” reflected in either “the ongoing presence of arbitrary social differences, or their replacement by natural inequalities due to differences of talent and self-direction” (pp. x, 7, 21). A constitutional arrangement which constructively deals with this division will not attempt to paper over its facticity with promises of equal individual rights—especially since, under finance capitalism, those promises have mostly, according to Deneen, been formulated in terms of a (in his view, presumably hopeless) educational dream of turning “’the many’ into ‘the few’” through a “notional redistribution of managerial status to every human” (pp. 37-38). Rather, a better constitutional regime would turn to “the tradition of the West itself,” which looks not to any kind of transformation through either individual development or collective action, but instead to “[c]ontinuity, balance, order, and stability, grounded in the unchanging truths knowable through human reason and also present in the Christian inheritance of the West”—a “common good conservatism,” one which requires “a virtuous people…maintained through the energies and efforts of virtuous elites” who are “oriented to supporting the basic decencies of ordinary people” (pp. 68, 124).

Deneen admits that the aristocratic-populist elites that he hopes will emerge concomitant to the disruptive, “demotic” challenges to the current order--which they, according to his theory, must simultaneously orchestrate in unspecified Machiavellian ways--wouldn’t be able to play this virtuous role immediately.  But he holds out hope that, once the dominant actors in the present order have been mocked or frightened or voted (or pummeled?) into retreat, “a genuine aristoi might arise… through a kind of Aristotelian habituation in virtue” (p. 185). This new aristoi, in the midst of the ruins of a liberal order whose collapse had been accelerated through decisive action, would theoretically be capable of modeling for the people their proper role, and thus enabling an eventual return to the mixed constitution of the few and the many which the classical tradition elaborated. 

The dangerous potential--and to those who share his traditionalist conservative sentiments, the dangerous appeal--of Deneen’s epic, revolutionary theory of regime change is thus pretty obvious. It has been standard for radicals of various stripes, infuriated by the economic inequality, the bureaucratic incivility, and/or the juridical injustice of so much of the liberal capitalist state as it emerged over the 20th century, to call for either a retreat from or revolt against it. The kind of “conservatism” that has historically emphasized the virtues of community (which, it must be remembered, is as often found on the left as the right) frequently opts to express its radicalism via retreat--that is, via turning towards the patient tending to of one’s own democratic, collective space, conscious of the harms which more systematic aspirations often involve. Hence the localist spirit of so many animated by these concerns, whether it be Wendell Berry’s defense of regional food systems, Bill Mckibben’s push for genuine (not corporate-subsidizing) energy independence, or a hundred other examples. But Deneen’s Regime Change, with its calls for revolutionary change, shifts away from such patient work--which, therefore, also suggests that the postliberal shift may be (as Adam Smith intuited in a recent Front Porch Republic essay) a shift away from localist concerns entirely. And to my mind, that means, inevitably and frustratingly, a shift away from actual democracy as well.

Deneen has elsewhere written thoughtfully—though I also think somewhat tendentiously—about the “crisis of democracy,” asserting that the turn to a framework of moral pluralism and pragmatism in the social sciences in the 20th century resulted in an “institutionalized relativism,” which itself could only result in attacks upon the “absolutism” present in “the mass of humanity who retained conservative beliefs due to unexamined prejudice or hostility to change.” Deneen’s understanding of pluralism in this particular case could be seriously contested, but leaving that aside, just consider his focus: he sees a crisis not relevant to democratic practices and procedures, but rather pertaining to the beliefs of the demos (though not the whole people, however defined: only “subcultures” of it). Deneen’s concern is apparently with the demos, the people, as a category which holds certain beliefs, not with how (or to what degree, or even if) the people, whatever their beliefs, actually govern themselves, which is the usual meaning of “democracy”--that is, rulership by the people.

Regime Change does lay out a positive vision of the demos, defending “the wisdom of the people,” and showing how liberalism—including both the individualism which produced mass democracy and the materialism which produced post-Industrial Revolution liberal capitalism—has tended to marginalize the virtuous capacities of, and undermine the sustaining social conditions of, communities of people in the name of “progress.” (Deneen’s reading of John Stuart Mill is particularly intriguing here.) But that positive vision depends upon the persuasiveness of his affirmations regarding the source of that wisdom, and that persuasiveness is lacking. He does not deny that what he various calls “the people,” “the working class,” or “the many” are currently in bad shape, writing that “[r]eams of statistics demonstrate that they are far less likely to exhibit certain kinds of virtues related to marriage, family, work, and criminality than the ‘elites’ that they often disdain” (p. 17). But that data does not stop him from constantly hypothesizing about their traditionalist potential, speaking repeatedly of the “instinctual conservatism of the commoners,” who “tend not to view the world as fungible launching pads, but rather, one of inherited homes” (pp. x, 60). (He holds out hope that they are “potentially more numerous” than their hypothesized opposites as well—p. 159).

Repeated incantations, however, are not arguments. Millions of voters (though not a majority) supporting Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 is hardly dispositive support for his insistence upon the immanent existence in the United States of what he curiously calls a “nonaspirant” demos: a people collectively longing for an elite to, through their governing behavior, situate and contextualize and thus perhaps validate their presumably stable routines. As regards those routines, he waxes agrarian in depicting them: “grounded in the realities of a world of limits…in tune with the cycle of life and rhythms of seasons, tides, sun and stars” (pp. 27, 23). His repeated formulation of the masses as being perversely victimized by elites who present the “remnants of traditional belief and practice… [that inform] the worldview of the working class” as the views of society’s true oppressors (p. 28), makes it clear that (given that a slight but nonetheless real majority of even those Americans lacking a high school diploma consider the legalization of same-sex marriage to have been good for the country, in the same way that a majority of voters with lower incomes voted for Joe Biden in 2020) that the “working class” which Deneen has in mind is probably very much a “subculture” indeed.

That isn’t to deny that a liberal democratic society ought to enable subcultures to organize and collectively articulate their own communal norms (at its root, that's what any and every "populist" movement, from the People's Party to Occupy Wall Street, have always been about). The atomization inherent to liberal capitalism absolutely should be resisted, and there are important ways in which the organization of local and regional democratic practices and procedures, as both socialist and subsidiarian thinkers have argued, can help accomplish those ends. (It is perplexing that when it comes to the actual political organization of the demos, Deneen gives almost no thought to cities or counties or states; he is critical of what he sees as liberalism's tendency to breakdown "the onetime solidarity of subnational communities," but nonetheless his national conservatism basically leaps from the family and neighborhood--with a nod to the communitarian truth of Hillary Clinton's "it takes a village" manta--to the nation-state and the international society beyond--pp. 221, 225-226).)

While even just thinking of the American demos as simply national, Deneen’s recommendations for establishing a foundation for his theorized revival of a true mixed constitution between the few and the many—such as increasing the scope of democratic representation by expanding size of the House of Representatives, or strengthening the power of labor by putting workers’ councils on the same level as corporate boards when it comes to determining company policies and wages, or dramatically mixing the American people across regional and class differences by re-instituting the draft (pp. 168-171, 173-174)—include many excellent suggestions that would promote civic strength and identity, and thus counter the less democratic elements of our current order. But the content of that civic identity—which is, today, profoundly urban and pluralistic—is simply not what Deneen imagines it to be. Nor will it be, not unless his revolutionary aspirations actually include using state power to forcefully inculcate inegalitarian attitudes upon the people, which isn’t something he ever mentions. (He does allows that, in the midst of other imagined, Machiavellian disruptions, “forms of legislation that promote public morality, and forbid its intentional corruption, should be considered,” but as during a recent debate Deneen participated in alongside Diedre McCloskey, a widely respected transgender economist, he demurred from voicing specifics as to what those forms should be—p. 181). 

In the end, I think that if Deneen wants the demos to find his theory of regime change at all plausible, his articulation of it should show less uncomplicated assurance in the enduring accuracy of what Aristotle, Polybius, or Aquinas wrote about the culture of “the many” in the centuries before the rise of industrial technology, mass consumerism, and urban patterns of life made possible the movement of yeomen into a professional, specialized middle-class, and more explorations of the way that a constitutional order beyond our own would address the demands for greater democratic and socio-economic empowerment. Because such demands are there. As John Médaille observed as part of a response to Deneen years ago, “culture is downstream from breakfast,” and it was the demand for breakfast—not just the ability to obtain it, but also the ability to make decisions about how and where and with whom one should be able to obtain it—which truly gave birth to liberal modernity, far more than John Locke’s philosophical abandonment of the classical mixed constitution. Locke’s ideas, and those of subsequent liberals, arguably served the needs of those seeking breakfast quite poorly in the long-run, making it increasingly easy, over the centuries, for an individualism which prioritized efficiency over community, and progress over common sense, to warp our understanding of the democratic authority which the people came to believe should be equally shared among all breakfast-seekers. But that warping cannot be simply wiped away, much less mocked or frightened or voted (or pummeled?) into hiding by the potential threat of some angry mob.

Deneen’s epic, dangerous, anti-egalitarian theory shows great love for “community,” but it is a love which places the demos of the community on a pedestal, presenting their supposedly static traditions and routines as enacted beliefs that will inspire and guide the governing elite, but which denies them any formal ability to make decisions for themselves, or at least not any beyond what Deneen calls “the slow accumulation and sedimentation of norms and practices over time” (p. 132). Deneen has always been suspicious of overly romantic, quasi-religious idealizations of democracy, preferring instead what he once called “democratic realism.” Well, democratic realism has to include, I think, dealing with the people as they actually and presently exist, in all their busy, urban, depressing, glorious, subcultural plurality. Nothing in Regime Change suggests that Deneen places himself in the position of the East German apparatchik mocked in Bertolt Brecht’s famed poem "Die Lösung": Would it not be easier….To dissolve the people / And elect another? Still, one hopes that he will make the effort, in subsequent writing, to make it clear that any postliberal readers who draws that unfortunately not unreasonable conclusion from his book are in the wrong.