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Monday, February 27, 2023

Songs of '83: "Little Red Corvette"

Forty years ago this week, Prince's "Little Red Corvette" (not his greatest song, nor my favorite, but quite arguably his single most iconic and best remembered pop number) entered Billboard's Top 40--and...just...wow. If a 14-year-old virgin Mormon who milked cows every morning and rode his bike to school could figure out immediately what this song was about, anybody could (and, I'm sure, did). I wonder if this was the very song that MTV's Mark Goodman was thinking of when he told David Bowie that the station had to be careful when it came to showing this kind of cosmopolitan, sexual stuff that viewers could handle in big cities but definitely not in the sticks. Honestly, it's not even the most explicit--or maybe, better, the most blatant--R&B-style song bout sexual intercourse that made it onto the playlists of the Top 40 radio stations I was listening to back then; Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" was released in October the previous year, but it was still near the top of the charts in February of 1983. Anyway, Prince was amazing--and when he died suddenly in 2016, this song was what people remembered:

Monday, February 20, 2023

Songs of '83: "She Blinded Me with Science"

Yet another one-hit wonder! (And still not the last.) Thomas Dolby recorded and released this song in the UK in 1982 (where it was a complete flop), after having conceived and story-boarded the whole video, and maybe even after having hired Magnus Pyke--a legit biochemist who had become, after decades of public service, a radio and television personality in England--to play the mad scientist for all I know. The song itself was practically an afterthought. Associating a multi-media composer and dabbler and entrepreneur like Dolby with long-suffering, hard-working bands like Dexys Midnight Runners, who similarly only had one shot at American pop radio, isn't really fair, but hey, that's the music business for you. Re-released in the United States as part of a whole EP, it entered the Billboard charts 40 years ago today, and the rest is history. (Or maybe "science.")

Friday, February 17, 2023

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for Kansas Republicans

[This is a somewhat expanded version of an editorial which recently appeared in The Wichita Eagle and elsewhere.] 

Last weekend Mike Brown, a former Johnson County commissioner and a failed primary candidate for GOP Secretary of State Scott Schwab’s job, and someone who has expressed sympathy on multiple occasions for former President Trump’s lies regarding the 2020 election results, was chosen to be the new chairperson of the Kansas Republican party. This is a frustrating result for those local Republicans--and I know they're out there; I know several myself--who keep hoping to separate election conspiracies from their party’s substantive platform, an effort that, of late, one could argue that was, all things considered, going pretty well.

It's easy for the terminally online to forget, but it needs to be remembered that for a great many ordinary citizens, including a significant minority of Republicans, the claims of voter fraud and rigged elections promoted by Trump, culminating in the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, had always made little sense, a feeling that has only grown more pronounced outside the hot-houses of conservative websites (and, unfortunately, Republican leadership caucuses, but even there many Republicans are silently trying to extricate themselves). This drift has become even more pronounced as time has gone by; recent polls show that election denialism declined by more than half between the elections of 2020 and 2022, and overall only a third of those not already caught up in conspiracy theorizing say they find such paranoia understandable. In short, continuing to obsess and nitpick over super-close elections has increasingly come to seem to most Americans as pointless, dangerous, and strange.

Kansas, however, has its own long and separate history with Republican electoral paranoia. Long before Trump started ranting about how he was robbed—and started harassing GOP officials and his own vice-president to get them to support his lost cause—we had Kris Kobach, who for years as Secretary of State made claims about illegal voting he was never able to prove, and demanded prosecutorial power to enforce voter restrictions which were thrown out as unconstitutional. Meaning that Kansas Republicans, including the ordinary rank-and-file ones, have long seen hysteria over election security overshadow their other priorities, which is why the failed (but still very close!) efforts to derail Kobach in his race for attorney general had significant Republican support.

Still, looking across the country, particularly at defeated, Trump-endorsed, non-existent voter-fraud-obsessed Republican candidates in Arizona and elsewhere, many Kansas Republicans probably had reason to feel hopeful for the direction of the state party. Despite the closeness of his loss to Governor Kelly, Derek Schmidt left the stage without recriminations (same thing for Kobach, who not only made no criticism of his squeaker of a win but also spoke only of his conservative agenda, and said nothing about contesting the governor's equally narrow win). Schwab won re-election handily in the midst of national under-performance by other local Republicans, all while insisting the Kansas elections were secure and reliable. Perhaps they were shaking off the preoccupations of their former national leader?

Many are, no doubt. Unfortunately, some Kansas Republicans are still obsessed with the idea that ballot drop-boxes or mail-in ballots allow nefarious actors to skew or falsify election results. And now, they have a state party chair on their side.

When running against Schwab in the Secretary of State GOP primary, Brown mocked his opponent for refusing to claim the same voter-hunting power Kobach had previously abused, insisted that all ballot drop-boxes should be banned, and implied that Schwab was at fault for not investigating outlandish, unsubstantiated claims about ballot-dumping and more. As party chair, he obviously won’t be involved in setting priorities for the Secretary of State, much less shaping legislation. Nonetheless, his narrow, 88-90 vote triumph among state party leaders—powered mostly by conservative Republicans in the 3rd District, frustrated by seeing their message increasingly rejected by moderates in the Kansas City area and the resulting “purple creep” that, among other things, kept Representative Sharice Davids in office, despite a Republican gerrymander explicitly designed to get rid of her in 2022—is surely frustrating to those Kansas Republicans who are hoping to move their party out of Trump’s shadow.

Of course, Trump may well be back at the top of the national GOP ticket come 2024, so perhaps the state Republican is just getting ready to fall in line. But for those many Republicans who recognize—even if they keep their views quiet—how hopeless and dangerous adhering that line is, the Brown’s selection likely strikes them as an unfortunate stop backwards, while others try to push ahead.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Songs of '83: "Mr. Roboto"

Forty years ago this month, Styx--motivated partly by the enormous success of their previous two albums, partly by a desire to give the finger to conservative Christian activists who protested their concerts, and partly by the fact that the pop sound they'd only recently embraced seemed increasingly defined by computerized synth beats--released their most ambitious album ever: the rock-opera Kilroy Was Here. Nominally the story--complete with an accompanying film--of the "Majority for Musical Morality" outlawing rock 'n' roll music and using advanced, made-in-Japan robots to throw Styx's lead singer Dennis DeYoung in jail on false charges, who then breaks out and leads a rebellion, I suspect the only thing that most people remember from it is "Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto." Its Nipponophobic caricatures are best forgotten, and the whole production just has not aged well, despite the huge success of its lead single.

Listening to "Mr. Roboto" today, you can hear in it a weird--though still catchy--attempt to both embrace and push back against computerization ("The problem's plain to see / too much technology / Machines to save our lives / machines dehumanize"). Maybe Styx never stopped being prog-rockers at heart? The tensions the band felt over their new direction led them to break up pretty much immediately after this album, so perhaps jumping head-long into the new cosmopolitan, synthesized style wasn't a good idea. I can cut them some slack, though; it was 1983, the Time Magazine-endorsed Year of the Computer, so it's not like they were the only ones experiencing technological angst.

Monday, February 06, 2023

Songs of '83: "Separate Ways"

"Separate Ways" was the first single released off Journey's eighth studio album (and their last great rock album, I think most radio listeners would agree), Frontiers. By early February, 40 years ago, it was making its way up the Billboard charts, eventually cracking the Top Ten. While probably neither the most iconic nor most popular rock power-ballad which the band came up with, its R&B-plus-synths-plus-guitars-plus-Steve Perry's vocals sound is haunting, as the Stranger Things remix makes clear.

As I suggested in my original 1983 thesis, there's a dim sense in which one could argue that 1983 crystalized a transitional cultural moment, a moment when masses of, as I put it, "White, straight, suburban radio-listeners" like myself internalized, in however limited a way, a more urban, more gender-fluid, more multi-racial, more danceable and electronic and funky pop sound. Not that any of that stuff was entirely new, but as some point it became something of a norm, something that couldn't be contained and carved off, as disco at least initially was. Well, no crystalization exists without a counter-reaction. Am I suggesting that Journey, a San Francisco rock band, could be fairly appropriated as an unintentional avatar of the non-Second British Invasion, non-polyglot, White, straight, suburban radio sound of Reagan's America? The distant ancestor of the resentful, Angry White Male American rocker? Almost certainly not. But still, look at that video: they sure do look like a bunch of White dorks, don't they? I mean, that's the way I would play air guitar, if I had to. MTV wasn't their medium, but they had to pretend like it was anyway. 1983: a whole new world, baby.