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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.