Notes from a Bus Ride

“Well, won’t you lend your lungs to me? Mine are collapsing.”-“Lungs” Townes Van Zandt

In the distance, I see the future, burning skies and flooded forests, states swept away, leaving only the levees that enabled their destruction, bodyguards who double-crossed their mark.

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“Gather up the gold you’ve found/you fool it’s only moonlight”
Around me is the now; a man on the bus takes heroin out of his pocket and examines it. He starts to nod off, opening the bus window before doing so, letting the cold air in. There are scabs across his body, capitalism’s stigmata in the form of smack side effects. The spring melt is arriving. The snow is running quickly, cold clear water surging down Mont Royal. But there is no dirt to hold it. The result is run-off, dirty water clear enough to pass as something else. A generation raised on YouTube is coming of age: the first whose learning, entertainment, and lives were lived according to capital-hungry algorithms, codes that do not prioritize profit but are only for that. Even the most greedy human is still human. As such, they can never operate as capital might like them to. Algorithms are different.

∫∫∫∫∫
“You better leave this dream alone/try to find another”
Buildings grow more grotesque by the day. High rises are being built downtown; each time I walk by, I dream of Molotovs. Industrialization has put us in the guillotines. Capitalist rats chew at the ropes, unaware the blade will kill us all.

∫∫∫∫∫
“Wisdom burned upon a shelf/who’ll kill the raging cancer”
Fascism is capitalism’s immune system—it becomes popular when the system is sick. Yet it offers no alternative. This is by design, for it is meant only to buy ruling class time. Unwilling to give up their position, however, the elite do nothing. We look at the 1930’s and assume fascism will pass. But then we had Germany as a potential enemy. This allowed us to position fascism as anti-American. Fascism is reliant on nationalism, and stripped of it becomes politically inert. Now we have no fascist enemies—our forever war is against the poor and Muslim, not the rich and Aryan. And so, barring a fundamental system overhaul, we will careen into the abyss wearing MAGA hats and coal rolling.

 

Recognizing a Work of Art

“Bowie, some McCartney, but who else does it sound like? It’s familiar, but I can’t quite place it. Give it a listen and help me out?” I texted my father. I was talking about Meilyr Jones’s stunning solo debut 2013, released earlier this year. In an age where almost every song from history is at our finger tips, this is how we talk about music. This song is a dash of this and a pinch of that, all mixed up in the bowl labeled Beatles. Analysis takes the form of deconstructing the song, breaking it up into its component parts and identifying each, showing of the interplay between the library inside your head and the one on your computer. Though we all do it, it’s not healthy. Steve Hyden is probably right when he says that listening this way lessens our enjoyment—we become so caught up in ID’ing influences that we forget to listen to the song as a whole.

Jones gets this; breaking down every genre and influence on the album is as futile as trying to name every type of flower in the bouquet on the front cover. While it does make it hard to explain to people (would you listen if someone told you one of their favorite albums of the year was a blend of rock, pop, and classical with the band sung by a former member of an electronic group backed by a thirty piece band made up of his friends in Wales? Didn’t think so), it makes for a great listening experience that gets better each time. It also allows Jones to play with ideas of love, authenticity, sexuality, and indexicality to create a sprawling work in which all roads lead back to Rome.

On 2013’s first song, “How to Recognize a Work of Art,” Jones croons that when he examines his photograph for the “mark authentic authors…leave on works of art,” he finds nothing. Though he took it, he declares that the photo is “a fake, it’s a fake, it’s a fake,” a sardonic mockery of society’s obsession with assigning authenticity. It’s a rejection of the idea that only certain people can create real art—a rebuttal to the “cult of the artist.” It reminds me of Ben Lerner’s essay in Harper’s on the “tyranny of price;” the idea that vandalizing a work is art if it raises the value, and criminal if it lowers it. Of course, the change in value almost always corresponds to the fame of the vandal. In a world where every phone has a camera and we all have photoshop, we’ve become obsessed with the idea of someone being a “real” artist, as if such thing exists. Of course there’s a difference between Annie Leibovitz and an eight year old with an iPhone; that’s obvious to anyone with eyes. The cult of the artist also diminishes the creator—it says the work is important because of the name on the bottom, not the content it’s attached to. Later in the song, Jones describes watching a video someone made with Kurt Cobain, noticing that the eyes aren’t right. Again, he sarcastically begins yelling that it’s a fake, even though it was real to the creator. Jones reminds us that despite what society says, real is relative in art. In his orchestra, the strings respond, matching his voice as he sings, “there are highs…there are lows,” in an arrangement reminiscent of classical music, only for the drums and guitar to cut across them in a traditional pop beat. He’s not a composer; it can’t be art—just a pop song pretending to be more.

Perhaps my favorite song on the album is “Strange Emotional.” It’s a testament to Jones’s skill that he can take signifiers relating to many things and shape them so their only referent is Rome. He takes a tone reminiscent of Road to El Dorado’s faux-Spanish colonial meets Brit rock,[1] turns up the Bowie influence, and makes it all seem as authentically Italian as Verdi. What’s more, he does this without relying on indexicals of being there. He follows the indexical that he is “writing to you from [his] room in Rome” his “only home” by asserting that he is “an actor recalling his previous life.” He is “happy here [he] used to know the winds above [him] and the sounds below” [emphasis mine]. Through the sudden switch to the past tense, Jones casts doubt that the preceding “here” refers to his room in Rome, undermining his own claim of being there. By unmooring signifiers from their referent in both the orchestral arrangements and the lyrics, Jones confronts binary ideas of sexuality—if “here” doesn’t refer to Rome, and Spanish structures are now Italian, what’s to say the “you” that wants “a man a little bit older” refers to the unnamed female prevalent in pop? This fluid sexuality is a theme of Jones’s album; “Olivia” begins with him singing sweetly about a “broke, white girl singing Sweet Home Alabama,” while “Return to Life” is an ode to a man with “wavy hair like Byron” who teaches Jones that “love is a burning strike.” In Don Juan, he bemoans that “girls can’t help me, boy’s can’t help me,” Much like the mingling of genres confuses the listener trying to box the album in, Jones purposefully confounds those who conceive of sexuality as either/or.

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Photo by Phil Sharp for The Line of Best Fit

“Strange Emotional” also touches upon a motif that runs through the album: rain. The album’s halfway point is marked by an interlude called “Rain in Rome,” which features soft singing over the sounds of rain and thunder, which eventually morphs into applause. Throughout out the album, such as at the beginning of “Olivia,” the drum kicks and snares are played simultaneously with hi-hats and cymbals to invoke the feeling of a hard rain comingling with thunder. On “Strange Emotional,” he sings, “when it rains here, it really rains.” It’s an odd choice for an album meant to capture the experience of living in Rome, especially considering the city’s association with the sun. Somehow it works. When Jones couples his lover asking him if he takes the elevator or stairs with wondering why the lover would care if Jones “ran out to the streets with wet hair,” all you can think of is Roman streets and storms. It brings to mind the elevator scene in Paulo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, as well as the protagonist Jep’s embrace of his ex-lover’s husband in the hard rain. Sorrentino’s biggest influence, Fellini, adored the beauty of rainstorms. Jones invokes the Roman rain of their films, all romance and no umbrellas, causing the listener to imagine an idealized version of the city. This doesn’t make his portrayal any less authentic. How Jones remembers Rome is inevitably informed by the city’s portrayal in film and literature; to pretend otherwise would be a rejection of his experience.

Jones doesn’t rely solely on his lyricism, however. As I touched upon above, his consistently brilliant arrangements enter into conversations with what he says, calling to mind the call-and-response nature of jazz staples. Nowhere is this more obvious than on “Featured Artist,” where the trumpet acts as an exclamation point, a sarcastic laugh, and a straight response. Jones never fully strays into an identifiable style, however, preferring to keep the listener from fully dissecting the song through layering the jazz elements with pop guitars and romantic strings. The song’s lyrics focus on the human mundanity of the musician’s life, the repetition of rehearsals that lead to being “this week’s featured artist,” in a failed attempt to stave off death. Through mixing elements from several centuries, Jones turns the song into a statement on artistry, and people, in general—Jazz, classical, pop; musicians, painters, writers; artists, accountants, athletes; we all work hard to make it look easy, and die having done nothing else. The worry of repetitive work towards a cosmically unimportant goal reappears through the album. On “Olivia,” he lists a few of the select works that have outlived their creators before crooning that he is “working, working/ now I cannot be employed” as flutes, violins, and vocalists reminiscent of Russian ballet play in the background. It conjures the emotion of a man caught in an unfair system, one where he can either work himself toward a nigh-unreachable dream or chase love, but not do both.

Jones’s album reminds us of the futility of trying to fit music into defined, narrow boxes, chastising us that characterizing an artist solely in terms of their predecessors or genre is reductive and wrongheaded. A song is greater than the sum of its parts. A bouquet is more than just lilies, orchids, and roses. It’s the complicated interplay between them, the soft melding of the purples and whites, the mingled scents and sights. Approaching it as such tells us more about its creator and ourselves than any deconstruction ever will.

 

[1] Elton John did the soundtrack, and honestly, it’s one his best works, as absurd as that sounds.

Devils We Know

I wrote this up quickly yesterday morning, and it hasn’t had time for much editing. Apologies for its rough nature.

Vox.com, the occasional bane of my existence, published an interesting article yesterday. On its own, this is not particularly noteworthy—though they have fucked up massively in the past, and Matthew Yglesias isn’t worthy of the three seconds it’d take to make a joke about him, they do some good work. What was arresting, however, was not just that Vox had published a very good piece, but the content of the piece itself: “The smug style in American liberalism,” and everything such a title entails. In it, Emmett Rensin decries the attitudes of liberal elites who, for the past two decades, have adopted a form of posturing that portrays all who disagree with them as dumb rubes. In essence, it’s several thousand words bemoaning that liberalism has become performative. He’s not wrong. We all have the family members and friends on Facebook that share articles about how Fox news watchers are dumber than those who listen to NPR or truly think that sharing that funny John Oliver video about Donald Trump will change voters’ minds.[1] Let’s get this out of the way: it won’t and if anything will only reinforce the belief of Trump supporters or those who watch Fox that liberals are elitists who feel only disdain for those who disagree with them.[2]

That said, something in his argument struck me as uncharitable to disenfranchised conservatives—especially when he got to the section on Kim Davis. It brought to mind the summer after my junior year of high school. I spent much of the it travelling across Georgia for golf tournaments. Despite the reputation of the sport, people’s financial and educational backgrounds were quite varied. A lot were like me—well off, from urban centers (particularly Atlanta), and preparing to pursue college degrees at elite universities (both public and private) across the nation. Plenty however, were from incredibly rural areas across Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee. They almost universally planned on joining the military—it seemed to them the only way to proceed in life.

It was someone from the latter group that got stuck in my mind as I read Rensin’s piece. He was from rural Mississippi—I don’t remember exactly where. It was the second day of the tournament, and we were both so out of the running that the greater competition was to not be last. We started talking about our plans for the future. I told him I was planning on going up north to study physics and philosophy.[3] He turned to me, a bit wide-eyed, and asked, “so you believe all that stuff?”

I looked at him quizzically (an eyebrow may have been raised) and asked, “what stuff?”

“Like, the Big Bang and all that. You think it’s real?” There was no disdain in his voice, just genuine curiosity. I wanted to respond in kind, but seventeen years of metropolitan elitism is hard to shake, and there was probably a fair amount of contempt in my voice as I responded, “yeah, of course.”

He took it in stride, and gave me a look I’ll never forget. Sincerely interested and more than a little skeptical, he knotted his brow and asked, “Can you explain it to me? They never really taught us it in school.”

I was taken aback and filled with guilt for being so dismissive. From a distance we probably looked pretty standard, two rising seniors walking down the fairway, towards the woods where’d I hit my ball, chatting away. No one would have known I was trying (and failing) to answer his cosmological (and once he found out I was culturally Jewish—religious) questions, and asking him plenty of my own about where he had grown up.

I’m sure Rensin is right about why a lot of poor and working class whites now vote against the Democratic party. Plenty of it is probably out of the anger provoked by neo-liberalism when it moves jobs out of the country, demolishes labor unions, and takes food out of their mouths. He’s right that liberals project an elitism that certainly doesn’t help and, in fact hurts, the cause. He’s right that sharing the Daily Show’s sick burn and the culture of knowing (which is different from knowing), creates a self-perpetuating cycle that will permanently alienate the metropolitan liberal from those he or she purports to care for. He’s right that liberalism should not be perfomative. But there’s an underlying current in the argument, one that never reaches the surface but at times can nonetheless be seen clearly: It’s not that conservatives in rural areas are dumb, it’s that they are borderline malevolent. It’s not that Kim Davis misunderstands Christianity, but that Christianity is bad, she knows it, and follows it anyway. It’s uncharitable to the people and region, to say the least, and certainly inaccurate. It’s also a belief not uncommon around Vox. Remember when David Roberts (aka “Dr. Vox”), called the Southeast the most “barbaric” region in any developed democracy? It’s a moral elitism instead of an intellectual one. And it’s just as harmful to paint someone as evil as it is to paint them as an idiot.

The final question the boy from Mississippi asked me was whether, as an agnostic Jew, I believed in hell. I responded no—though I’m not sure what the Torah has to say, I personally couldn’t imagine a benevolent, omniscient god would eternally punish people for the mistakes of a single earthly life. Especially, because usually, they’re just that: mistakes. We’re humans, with all that entails, not devils.

[1] Never mind how uncomfortable it should make people that our response to someone being anti-immigrant is by shaming them for having a Germanic ancestral name.

[2] Let’s also get this out of the way: my politics are murky, but I’d call myself a leftist before I’d call myself a liberal.

[3] Those who know me now understand how badly I understood myself then.