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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.

Monday, June 05, 2023

Songs of '83: "Every Breath You Take"

This is the big one, folks, or at least one of the very biggest. Go back to this very week, 40 years ago, and the summer of Synchronicity--the fifth, last, and best album by The Police--exploded onto America's airwaves, with "Every Breath You Take" leaping into the Billboard Top 40 the very first week of its release, rushing quickly to the #1 spot. The Police arrested us, and it was weeks before we were finally let go.

1983, as I argued at the beginning of this series, can be seen in retrospect as the year when all sorts of urban, technological, cosmopolitan, racially and sexually mixed tropes and beats, various styles and instrumental tricks that had been percolating for years in the clubs of Great Britain and the discos of New York and elsewhere, finally and truly broke through and redefined pop radio in America. The face of that transformation--a transformation that woke up MTV to what increasing numbers of young Americans were actually listening to--was, of course, Michael Jackson, the 1970s R&B star whose Thriller was the biggest album of the year: 22 weeks at number 1 in sales, and the Grammy winner of Album of the Year. Yet right behind that product of the funky, multi-racial American stew which was disco? The Police--and this terrific, creepy, beautiful song crafted by that post-punk, post-reggae, New-Wave-Before-New-Wave trio actually peaked longer than any of Thriller's hits, lasting a full two months at #1, and winning Song of the Year the same year Jackson took home the album title. If any single pop record defines 1983, it's probably this one.

The Police are hard to fit into my thesis, it's true; it's more like they oversaw it from above, or from the side. As Tom Breihan once wrote, The Police "messed around with synths, but they were never synthpop. They rode the wave of punk, but they were never punk. They weren’t prog either, but they’d been schooled in prog, and people who cared about such things could revel in their sophisticated musicianship. The Police were perfectly at home in arenas and stadiums, and they made big, echoing, open-chord rock songs that resonated far and wide. They were new, but they weren’t too new." Possibly similar sorts of things could be said about Elvis Costello, The Pretenders, Joe Jackson, Talking Heads, The Clash, Blondie, and more. These were all pop and rock performers that made it onto the radio after having schooled themselves in a mid-to-late-1970s era when punk and disco climaxed and began their decline, but definitely still weren't dead, and so some of their sound was constructed out of musical remnants that for most of the rest of the Second British Invasion, just a few years later, had arguably been supplanted by all the new toys coming out of dance halls of London, Paris, and Berlin. ("Born in the 50's" isn't on anyone's list as the standout track on The Police's first album, 1978's Outlandos d'Amour, but it situated them well all the same.)  

Speaking of 1978, The Police are one of only five acts--two others of which were mentioned in the above paragraph--who threaded the American pop radio needle in such a way as find a home not just on the Billboard charts, but also my radio-listening memories, for both this 1983 list, and my Songs of 1978 list, from five years ago. And The Police--definitely in terms of sales, but probably in terms of cultural impact as well--were the biggest of those three. The Police song from 1978 that stands out was, of course, "Roxanne." By 1983, they'd worked through whatever shared passions they'd once had for reggae and rock guitars and were instead exploring the whole world of music in utterly different directions: atmospheric jazz, classical, urban funk by way of Western Europe, and much more. Sting's strange mix of poetic and literary sensitivity, on the one hand, and contemptuous, almost clinical arrogance on the other had colored almost every note they released. And of course, by this time, they all basically hated each other, or at least Sting and Stewart Copeland couldn't even get through and interview without threatening to quit the band or bust one another in the chops:  

The story of "Every Breath You Take" has often been told, and just as often retold. Originally grasped, hungrily and somewhat defiantly, by the band as their best and biggest break for pop glory, it wasn't long before The Police, as the song became omnipresent, began to dump on its arrangements, and to own up to the stalking, possessive, borderline abusive sentiment which gives the lyrics their vaguely repellent power, counter-posed against the way Andy Summers's marvelously fractured, suspended-chord guitar riff keeps drawing you in. Is it a musical masterpiece for misogynistic creepers? Sure! And as Stephen Metcalf arguably implied in his comment which helped frame my take on 1983 from the beginning, there is something in the sublimated anger, the kind of presumption, that Sting intentionally or otherwise wove into this tune which anticipated (or even incorporated?) its own backlash: the pitiless drive to make a very self-determined style of music in face of all sorts of cosmopolitan trends and changes. But originally, all this subtextual stuff that didn't stop every aspiring crooner (Ian McShane!) or post-disco wanderer (Andy Gibb and Marilyn McCoo!) from covering the song, to say nothing of Robert Downey, Jr., turning it into a hipster ballad or Puff Daddy turning it into a glorious hip-hop tribute. Because it's great 1983 song, maybe the greatest, and that's the truth. So hey, we might as well stick with the original, and enjoy.