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Sunday, December 31, 2023

Songs of '83 Special: "Puttin' on the Ritz"

Before I call this year to an end, just one more hit. My obvious and unstated foundation throughout this whole year is that I love the popular music of 1983. Maybe not as much as the swampy mix of hard rock and country and punk and more that to this day kick around in my memories of 1978...but still, the stuff that came over the airwaves the year I turned 15-years-old, the stuff which carried with it (as I only slowly learned later) the results of years of club experimentation and technological change and urban evolution? I think it was mostly brilliant, and I'm entirely happy to defend it all. Or, well, nearly all of it. Some of it wasn't that good. And some of it, though clever enough in its time, in retrospect is kind of creepy. And thus we come, on this last day of the year, to the long-promised, skipped-over, third German-language artist who hit it big on American radio in 1983: Taco, with his funky, synth-pop version of the Irving Berlin composition and the Fred Astaire classic, "Puttin' on the Ritz."

Why'd I skip over this song, which was cut in 1982 and become a one-hit wonder on American radio 40 years ago back in June? Because, as anyone who remembers knows, and as anyone who is patient enough to search through the internet can easily find out, the makers of the original video thought that a clever way to connect with a musical world that was, at the time, more than 50 years in the past (and today is nearly a century gone), was to feature tap dancers in blackface. It's not racist; it's ironic! It's a snappy, winking, faux-controversial homage! It's "European"! Yeah, no thanks. I suppose one could argue that, in his way, Taco's recording and video unintentionally serves as a synecdoche for the huge mess of multi-racial, gender-bending, cosmopolitan, and technological trends and controversies which 1983 pop radio encapsulated...but I'm not going to attempt that myself. Instead, I will sign off from this wonderful year-long exercise by thanking all 14 of you for following along, and share with you Taco performing his hit (appropriately lip-synched!) on a German New Year's Eve television special, 40 years ago tonight, complete with immensely bored showgirls. Enjoy everyone, and keep on listening!

Friday, December 29, 2023

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2023

Andrew Bacevich and Daniel Sjursen, eds., Paths of Dissent: Soldiers Speak Out Against America's Misguided Wars. This is a fine and often (though not always) insightful collection of personal essays, all of which describe how the authors came to their criticisms of America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past twenty years. All of the authors are veterans of these wars to one degree or another, and their range of experiences in and interactions with America's military establishment was probably the most informative part of the book to me. There are essays by deeply committed soldiers who fully embraced the bureaucratic realities of managing a global military presence, and came to oppose America's "forever wars" for strictly strategic reasons, their own positive experiences leading them spend a great deal of time explaining the how American generals failed to understand intricacies of counter-insurgency strategy, failed to appreciate and account for the logistics and costs of military technologies, and much more. But there are also essays by soldiers who were never on board with the rationales given for invading Iraq, or even Afghanistan for that matter; included in these essays are stories of the drug abuse, racism, incompetence, sexism, random violence, and massive waste and fraud on the part of their fellow soldiers--and sometimes themselves--while supposedly serving America's security interests and spreading democracy in the Middle East. Some of these authors look back on their time in these conflicts with pride but also deep regrets about all that went wrong; others look back with shame and horror; and others look back just grateful they escaped with their lives and limbs, when so many others did not. Ultimately, the largest point I take from these various multifaceted, but always militarily informed criticisms was simply: George W. Bush's time as president was a moral, a political, and a strategic catastrophe. By ordering the invasion of Afghanistan, and then keeping troops there beyond the immediate collapse of the Taliban, and much worse by ordering the invasion of Iraq, Bush's administration not only led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, but ruined millions of lives, and unleashed pathological regrets and resentments, in the USA and abroad, that may never be put to rest.

Stanley Hauerwas, War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity. Hauerwas definitely isn't everyone's cup of tea. A born essayist--in the most fundamental sense of the term, constantly "essaying" new ideas, rarely completing the one he had before the new one--his radical Christianity isn't developed carefully and consistently, thus leaving any remotely suspicious reader capable of dismissing his arguments as incomplete and unpersuasive. But for any of the tens of millions who can't help but recognize the radical, even absolutist, character of Christian teachings and expectations when it comes to matters of violence and peace, the many kernels of truth spread throughout Hauerwas's explication and explorations of theses basic doctrines are enormously valuable. His points about how we are addicted to violence and war in part because we don't want to cast impurity and guilt upon heroes of the past; about how violence and war is tied up in the very structures of state sovereignty and thus politics as we know of it today; about how American history can't help but associate war with idealistic causes which having been mythologized into the proper, "pure" understanding of our own identity...all of it is first rate. Hauerwas's reflections are, ultimately, an inspiration to Christians who want to understand a way to find in themselves a true conviction of peace, and that's a beautiful thing.

Peter Levine, What Shall We Do? A Theory of Civic Life. This is a top-notch work of analytical and practical political and social theory, one that I've been meaning to read for a year. Through a sharp analysis of Elinor Ostrom, Jurgen Habermas, and the civil rights activism of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Levine sketches out and concrete and deeply thoughtful set of insights and suggestions for people looking to engage in civic life, and make some democratic difference in their localities. He identifies key elements of each of the three above-listed traditions of participatory democracy and civic action, but also recognizes and explores the theoretical limitations of each, and from their provides a synthesis of recommendations. This is a book that, as a citizen and a teacher, I'm going to be pondering a while, considering how best to set boundaries, engage in deliberation, and model just behavior as I try to get local action to matter.

Warren Magnusson, Local Self-Government and the Right to the City. I finally got around to finishing this collection of essays by the political theorist Warren Magnusson, and I loved it. His insights are scattered, sometimes repetitive and not always well connected, but they remain brilliant all the same. His reconceptualization of "local self-government" in light of the "locality" of states in the international order, and the "locality" of individuals within a sovereign, contractarian state, is profoundly radical, opening up, to my mind anyway, all sorts of new ways of understanding the traditional definition of local government--specifically, its municipal form in towns and cities. Magnusson in these essays is a profound critic of sovereignty and subsidarity, seeing both of them as theoretical forms that define and delimit the kind of democratic mutualism and variability and practice that characterizes that huge, undefinable range of what I'll call "governmenting" (I'm definitely being influenced by David Harvey's use of the term "commoning" here) which takes place in cities. Magnusson wants us to think hard about a democracy, and right to self-government, that is not dependent upon territorialization, not dependent upon constitutional definitions. This puts him very much in the camp of left-libertarian or anarchist thinkers, but while he's familiar with the philosophical ideas behind those theories, he approaches their conclusions with a language all his own, and one that I find kind of brilliant. This man's thinking is a small treasure.

Paul McCartney, 1964: Eyes of the Storm. I found 1964: Eyes of the Storm outside my front door this morning: a gift from a friend. I tore through the whole thing in a single day—of course, it's mostly photographs, so no big accomplishment, but still, it was a delight. I loved Macca's introductory essays; I felt as though I could see him sliding back and forth between repeating old stories automatically and being derailed by old memories he hadn't articulated in decades, if ever, obliging him to put words for the first time to the thoughts he remembers having had decades before. There's a good amount of unreflective, unimproved emotionality throughout the book, I think, in the short essays but also in the labels to his wonderful, candid photographs: the way he writes about his picture of George with the girl in the yellow bikini in Miami, for example, or a shot of a pensive Ringo leads him to write movingly about him as still the "new guy" in the band. And there's a two-page spread with photos of John and George where it's not hard to imagine the look of their faces weighing on Paul with all the weight of 60 years. The historical essay on 1964 by Jill Lepore is fine, but nothing special; just your standard coffee-table stuff, I suppose. But the photographs? An incredible treasure, and a delight.

Bernie Sanders, It's Okay to Be Angry About Capitalism. This is a politician's memoir, and so I expected, and forgave, the many moments in the book, especially in the first few chapters, in which Sanders tells the stories of his own presidential campaigns both uncritically and somewhat simplistically. What I didn't expect, and greatly enjoyed, was seeing Sanders elaborate upon the things that he is truly passionate about--most particularly, the fact that contemporary capitalism makes it impossible for so many working people to not only get by on what they earn, but to also feel any kind of attachment to or gain any kind of dignity from their work. For all Sanders's talk about health care and education and billionaires, it is in regards to work, and the communities of labor and mutual recognition and respect for effort which ideally make the world of work something other than just tragedy which we must endure to survive, where he comes closest to genuinely and consistently articulating a democratic socialist vision. There are elements of a true visionary in his otherwise often boiler-plate left-liberal positions, and that's something that I am certain that, whether they could articulate it or not, millions of voters were captured by: that Sanders was presenting not merely a list of preferences, and not merely a roll-call of enemies, but also a vision of a better society. It comes through in this book, and that makes it great.

Jeff Speck, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. A brilliant update and expansion of an important book. He's really like a left-leaning Charles Marohn, someone able to concisely cut through the complicated institutional realities which have pushed our cities in directions that are not only unsustainable, but central players in all sorts of economic, racial, and environmental harms. All of his new material is wonderful, but because of the genuinely inventive way he ties terrible road design to invasive policing to basic questions of freedom, I have to say I liked "More Engineering Confessions" the best. 



Paul Thompson and Patricia Norris, Sustainability: What Everyone Needs to Know. A superb introductory book, which defines and lays out the broad usages of the ecological language of stocks, flows, feedback, and all the rest when talking about the environment, business, the economy, governance, and much more. Not a polemical book, and in fact one that probably bends too far over backwards to avoid taking a strongly anti-capitalist stance, but overall, one I can't believe I haven't been using in my Simplicity and Sustainability classes all along. 



J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion. At the beginning of this year, before the school year started up again, I decided to read The Silmarillion, mostly because I was uncertain if I'd ever read the whole thing all the way through before. I still had on my shelf an old, taped with masking tape, paperback Ballantine edition of the book, which I remember being on my shelves when I was in high school, or earlier. I still have battered, paperback copies of LOTR too, but there's no mystery there; they're beat up because I read them to death. But The Silmarillion? Had I ever truly gotten through it? I honestly couldn't remember. Well, I've gotten through it now, and it's a masterpiece of romance and religion and myth. Tolkien's cosmology and legendarium includes echoes of all the great stories, whether humble or cosmic: Atlantis is here, and Rapunzel, and Oedipus. The rhythm of the writing sweeps you along; there's no way anyone who isn't an autistic savant can possibly keep track in their head all the names and places and dates through this multilayered imagined genealogy of thousands and thousands of years, but that's honestly not the point: the point is to be carried into an epic world, a world of a profound and tragic and romantic and heroic saga of elves and humans, monsters and gods, women and men. Tolkien carried me along, that's for certain, and I loved the journey.

Thad Williamson, Sprawl, Justice, and Citizenship: The Civic Costs of the American Way of LifeA terrific dissertation-turned-book, stuffed full of good information an arguments, pointing towards the value (but also the limitations) of a civic republican perspective on addressing the problems of sprawl and its unjust, undemocratic effects on our civic life. The conversation about our built environment and how best to frame the ideological arguments about it have changed much in the nearly 15 years since this book was written, but as a primer to the basic theoretical arguments which surround the general topic of city life and transportation patterns and everything that flows from them, its value remains.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

The 10 Best Movies I Watched in 2023

As always, this is a list of the best ten movies I watched for the first time this year, whether they came out in 2023 or not.

First Cow. A decidedly unconventional Western story (welcome to the multicultural 19th-century Oregon Territory!), an anti-capitalist story, a story of simple survival and small pleasures. I would have liked the film to have slightly more momentum, but the score and the scenery, as the the movie's quiet and small--but for all that, emotionally enormous--tragedy unfolds, was frequently captivating nonetheless. I love that so much was left to the viewer, and not just in the ending; even without having read the book, you can tell this is a deeply literate adaption, not allowing the story-telling tricks of the cinema to tell more of a story than is on the page.


Godzilla: Minus One. Is it an apology for World War II? A revisionist history? A what-if fantasy? Whatever it was, the way this superb, hammy, utterly melodramatic movie leaned hard into updating and re-imagining the trauma and guilt and horror of WWII for the Japanese people, with token narrative throw-aways to somehow contextualize the whole thing as taking place in the midst of MacArthur's occupation of Japan and the beginnings of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, was simply marvelous. Put yourself in mind of the 1954 original, with its sadness and earnestness, and the desperate, romantic hopefulness of this version will seem well-earned. Godzilla always was, and always will be, best when considered incomprehensible enormity, something that makes no sense on its own terms but something that human science and human sacrifice can succeed against, so long as all the usual bastards don't get in the way. 

He Got Game. Another near-brilliant Spike Lee movie, with deeply persuasive performances and an Aaron Copland + Chuck D score than goes from sweepingly pastoral to intensely personal to back again. Denzel is simply a marvel, with so many great scenes that communicate the struggles and choices of a confused, angry, caring, limited, gifted, haunted man. Practically everyone else in the movie is a stereotype or a mixture of stereotypes of one sort or another, and as usual with Lee movies, some of that borderline racist/sexist/classist stuff edges right up to being discomforting outrageous or overripe. But all together? A wild cinematic ride, from one of the great directors of the past 30 years.


In the Mood for Love. Just brilliant, emotionally and stylistically. If I've seen a better, more captivating film about marriage and pain and desire and love and loss than this one, I can't remember it right now. Tightly contained throughout most of its running time, but I never felt that movie was claustrophobic; also, a succinct, briskly cut movie, and yet I never felt rushed through the story. Simply the best constructed, most emotionally powerful film I watched in all of 2023, hands down.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi. A beautiful and intimidating portrait of a serene and enormously talented monster of a human being. This film needs to stand as a text alongside every other study of virtue: we talk about practice making perfect, we talk about dedication to one's craft, we talk about the deep humility and wisdom that comes from embracing the constraints of a particular art and submitting oneself entirely to them, but in the end, what does any of that look like? This documentary of sushi master Jiro Ono is one answer. I love in particular the fact that his tremendous achievement is partly dependent upon many other people--fish and rice merchants, in particular--who in their own, presumably less monstrously dedicated, but nonetheless impressive ways, reflect that same devotion to their vocation. A lovely, haunting film.


Killers of the Flower Moon. A tremendous movie, one that, in my opinion, makes entirely justified use of its massive running time; with only one partial exception (the long burn scene at the Hale ranch), I don't think I was aware of the passage of time all the way through. Scorsese's direction of the film is brilliant; completely aside from visually arresting costuming, set design, and cinematography, he oversaw the creation of a film that is not structured like, and doesn't play out like, a horror film, and yet for a good two hours of its running time, between its musical cues and staging, it absolutely felt like a horror film, even while also being captivating Western and tragic study of evil, endurance, and plain gross capitalist stupidity. A friend and I spent 40 minutes talking about the movie afterwards in an empty, post-midnight parking lot, deconstructing it all (including the audacious, but in retrospect I think defensible, ending), and we could have stayed longer. I was a big fan of The Irishman, Scorsese's other recent 3+ hour movie, but this is an even greater accomplishment in almost every way.


Mother. A brilliant, creepy, surprisingly mix of horror, police procedural, and family drama. Compelling acted all the way through, and narratively tight as a drum; no loose ends whatsoeever. Like he did in Memories of Murder--which this movie really made me want to rewatch--Bong Joon-ho just triggers me endlessly with his visuals of the quotidian details of the poorer side of South Korean life: the tiny shops, the make-shift apartments, the trash collectors, the sleazy drinking parties, the slovenly yet somehow orderly routines of the police, the ridiculous bus tours, etc. It's not like I knew any of this intimately, but I lived in the midst of it for long enough that Bong sends me back to Seoul or Suwon, scene after scene.


RRR. 110% CINEMA!!! Singing, dancing, ultra-violence, chaste hand-holding--what more could anyone want?! ("Can I see a man punch a tiger in the face?" Yes, you definitely can. "Can I see a phantasamogorical alternate-history critique of British colonialism and also a man punching a tiger in the face?" Yes, you can get that too.)





Sound of Metal. An engrossing, fascinating, completely believable story of a musician losing his hearing. The final sequence of the movie, after our main character leaves the home for the deaf and attempts to reunite with his girlfriend, seemed slightly less organic, slightly more rushed to hit all the required story-telling beats than everything that came before, in which every step both logically followed what came before and yet was a surprise--kind of like life! But overall, the whole thing was quite wonderful, deeply honest and, as a matter of sound editing, brilliantly creative in its depiction of the world of the deaf. A must see. 

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Tremendous comic-book story-telling, and simply peerless comic-book animation. But I have to say: Mayday Parker is cute and hilarious and all, but making her directly part of the adventure--and lying to Mary Jane about it!--is just bad parenting, and I think more highly of Peter B. Parker, redeemed hero, the Spider-Man all us middle-aged White guys with a paunch should aspire to grow up to be, to accept that he would actually do such a thing. Boo!

Monday, December 25, 2023

Songs of '83: "Jingle Bell Rock"

Merry Christmas, everyone! Guess who released a special single for the Christmas season 40 years ago? Daryl Hall and John Oates! And guess what radio juggernaut, simply because they didn't quite fit into my narrative and didn't release an album in 1983 (though a couple of singles off 1982's H2O, their single biggest selling album of all time, were released during the year), have I not mentioned thus far in this year-long series? The same! So today, as a gift to you, I make up for that elision, twice over: enjoy the Daryl-on-vocals version of their cover of the Christmas classic, and the John-on-vocals version as well.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Songs of '83: "Joanna"

It would be a lie to claim that, as a White teen-age Mormon in Spokane, Washington in 1983, my ear glued to the radio, I was somehow also deeply familiar with R&B and soul. I wasn't. But American radio in 1983 wasn't yet quite as programmed and balkanized as it would later become; racial divides were many and, in retrospect, pretty obvious, but nonetheless, for every radio programmer concerned about how the Blackness of post-disco artists would play outside of the big cities, there was a Michael Jackson, a Prince, a Donna Summer, or a Lionel Richie to prove them wrong. So the fact is, I did know a little--enough to have insisted on monopolizing the television set for three hours one evening to watch the entirety of Motown Returns to the Apollo, among other things. One of those other things being Kool & the Gang, a great R&B group who were, by the early 1980s, coming to the end of the second wave of radio popularity in their, by then, 20-year-old history. "Joanna" wasn't their biggest hit ever--the ubiquitous "Celebration" holds that title--but it just might be their finest ballad, and I loved it.

Monday, December 11, 2023

Songs of '83: "99 Luftballons"

Of the three pop hits by German-language artists that American radio-listeners heard in 1983, Nena's "99 Luftballons" is, without doubt, the greatest, both in terms of chart success and overall musicality. Peter Schilling's "Major Tom" was clever and the source of a decent amount of nostalgia, and the one German-language hit yet to be revealed has its own--more controversial--nostalgic whimsy about it as well. But "99 Luftballons"? That's a solid (if synth-heavy) rock and roll tune, one of the essential tracks of Neue Deutsche Welle, the label created by Dutch and German music promoters in the late 1970s and early 1980s to talk about--well, pretty much what I've been talking about all year: namely, the post-punk and post-disco club sounds that knocked around Europe and slowly made their way on to pop radio, only in this case, the West German Cold War zeitgeist was pretty essential as well.

"99 Luftballons" is unusual for a European song picked up by American markets, in that it by-passed the UK entirely; Nena--which is the stage name of their lead singer as well as the name of the band--didn't release the song there until 1984, after it had gotten huge airplay across Europe and Japan. American and English promoters wanted an English version of the song, and that was released as part of whole album built around the hit song, but different band members (including Nena herself) never liked the not-especially-clever translation which they sang. Far better was the original German version from March 1983, which by December had been grabbed and played by enough big-city radio stations across the USA that Epic picked it up and officially released it stateside, 40 years ago this week. It shot up the charts, eventually reading #2 on the Billboard charts by early 1984--around the time British radio listeners heard the English-language version for the first time. A strange journey for a savagely bitter--but also weirdly romantic--song about American military generals accidentally destroying the world in a nuclear war after being freaked out by some balloons floating over the Berlin Wall (the line "Hielten sich für Captain Kirk"--"They all thought they were Captain Kirk" is, of course, the best bit of the whole song). But regardless: it rocks.

 And thirty-five years on, at least, back in 2018, it still did:

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.