Stranded On Santa Cruz

The desolate beach of Santa Cruz Island.

The desolate beach of Santa Cruz Island.

I was so ready to come out to California and recharge my battery. The following people live in California:

  • Mark Zuckerberg
  • Kobe Bryant (part-time)
  • Some migrant workers in the Central Valley
  • My best friend Doug and my cousins Greg, Leah, Lauren, Kevin, Fran, Marvin, Allen, and Marilyn

Doug and I always have a blast together. Over four years at Vanderbilt, we learned we could live with each other; after a month in Europe, we learned we could tolerate each other in isolation and speak honestly when one of us is being an annoying shit. If that’s not best friend criteria, then no one has best friends and we’re all just muddling around like microbes in the primordial soup.

Our time together did not disappoint. One night, we bought a drink for Cuba Gooding Jr. and subsequently got him to write the word “VAGINA” on a piece of paper before spending four hours with the three prettiest girls in James’ Bar at Venice Beach.

But the highlight of this trip was always going to be camping in Channel Islands National Park with my cousin Greg.

Quality time with the cuz.

Quality time with the cuz.

I’ve looked up to Greg for as long as I can remember. At first it was the age factor; he’s two and a half years my senior, and he filled the void of older brother in my life, which of course meant that I took after him in as many ways as possible. I have a particularly vivid memory of him making my sister’s Barbie and Ken dolls make out in their Barbie car, giving me my first taste of sex ed. Man, that was fascinating to watch.

We played water polo together for one season in high school, when he was the senior captain and I was the immensely awkward freshman who needed to learn how groups of boys operate. But it was after that our relationship really matured. You see, Greg, unbeknownst to me, had suffered from depression for years. After he graduated high school, he turned increasingly to substances as medication, diving deeper and deeper into the black hole of addiction. I didn’t learn all the horrible details until I interviewed Greg about his ordeals for a project during my junior year at Vanderbilt—all I knew was that he had moved to Los Angeles for treatment in a group home and that, against all odds, he had become a success story. He has been sober and completely drug-free since October of 2009.

Seeing my cousin emerge from his life-threatening struggle and witnessing the way he now conducts himself added a vast new dimension to my respect for him. I look at Greg and see someone who is incredibly comfortable in his own skin, confidently going about life exuding joie de vivre because he’s been to low points that I can’t even fathom. In his words, he’s found serenity, and that shines through him at all times. Spending a couple days with him taking in the breathtaking vistas on Santa Cruz Island was going to be an amazing opportunity for me to bask in that light and hopefully absorb some, not to mention getting some quality time with a cousin who’s usually separated from me by two thousand miles.

I didn’t really anticipate that things would get more interesting than that, but I guess anyone who goes camping and closes their mind off to that possibility isn’t really in search of an adventure.

Our fellow adventurers were up to the task.

Our fellow adventurers were up to the task.

The first thing to realize about the Channel Islands is that they’re islands. It’s easy to take islands for granted when you fly there—as I’ve done to Hawaii, Aruba, and Barbados—but there’s actually a whole bunch of ocean separating them from the mainland, and that ocean can be rough on boats and marine equipment, especially during an El Niño winter. A few days before we embarked, Greg and I got an email telling us that the pier on Santa Cruz island had been damaged by waves and we would be disembarking from our ferry via dinghy, the way old-timey sailors landed on new continents or American soldiers landed at Normandy (minus heavy gunfire). To me, that sounded pretty badass. Then we actually hit the ocean and the massive swells that rocked our vessel gave my stomach reason to question my bravado. It felt like we were on a roller coaster, which is awesome for two minutes at a time but really starts to wear on you after an hour and a half of pitching, yawing, and rolling. Fortunately, unlike some peons on the lower deck, Greg and I managed to hold our breakfasts down.

By the time we reached Santa Cruz’s Scorpion Anchorage, where we’d be kayaking and camping, it was already 12:30 pm—two hours later than we had expected to arrive. With the ferry departing at three and our kayaks expected to be onboard, we had about two hours to explore the myriad caves and cliffs along the island’s rugged coast. We felt horrible for the day trippers who would barely have any time to do anything. Word to the wise: if you ever go to the Channel Islands, the only way to make the trip worthwhile is to camp for a night.

If anything, the sea conditions had intensified since we landed, but we had paid a handsome fee to rent the kayaks. There was no way we were going to completely bail. So Greg and I put on our swim trunks, zipped rain jackets on over layers of insulation, and took to the ocean. We hoped that the jackets would at least keep us somewhat dry. Unfortunately, they only really work when you don’t submerge yourself completely in the water. Within the first minute of our voyage, I had already violated that rule with the least graceful attempt at mounting a kayak in world history. It took Greg a good while longer, but after about a half hour of paddling into a merciless headwind he was broadsided by a wave and tumbled into the Pacific. With him went his phone.

Having achieved the holy trifecta of outdoors misery (cold, wet, tired), we struggled back to Scorpion. Greg pulled his comatose iPhone from the pocket he had hoped was waterproof and told me not to mention anything about it so as not to unleash his fury. “This didn’t happen,” he said. “What didn’t happen?” I replied. He stared at me. I winked.

Luckily, we still had some dry clothes, so we changed into them and trudged up the road to our campsite, nestled in a eucalyptus grove surrounded by these beautiful, desolate hills. On our way, we saw the park ranger, Casey, driving toward us in an NPS white pickup. As he reached us, he stopped and rolled down his window.

“How’s it going, gentlemen?” Casey asked us.

“We were silly to go kayaking,” Greg responded. Casey laughed.

“Well, I just wanted to let you guys know a couple things. First of all, they’re saying that the wind is gonna be pretty rough tomorrow, so they might not be able to get a boat out here to pick you guys up.”

“What?”

“Yeah, if the wind’s blowing in the wrong direction they’ll have ten foot swells in the harbor. They’ll probably at least send a boat out here to tell you what’s going on, they have a bullhorn they can use to talk to you. But if it doesn’t happen tomorrow, it’ll definitely happen Wednesday. You guys wanna stay on the island?”

Greg and I looked at each other and shrugged. We hadn’t come all this way for a couple disgusting, soaked hours of kayaking and the death of Greg’s phone. “Yeah, we’ll stay.”

“The other thing is that I’m leaving the island to go spend the holidays with my girlfriend in Beverly Hills. The other ranger should be here tomorrow, but tonight, there’s not going to be a ranger on the island. I’ve left operating instructions on the radio in the ranger station, and there’s a satellite phone up there too.”

Wait, really?

“You fellas have a good stay on the island!” And Ranger Casey drove off.

Really? He couldn’t have waited to be relieved by the other ranger? First he freaked the shit out of me by saying that a couple weeks ago a girl had her quad severed by a boulder that fell on her kayak. Now he was abandoning us on a windswept, barren island that felt like a bastardized combination of St. Andrew’s and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran? I was getting that Into Thin Air feeling, where dangerous factors slowly but surely pile up and lead to inevitable disaster.

Sure enough, the next morning, we find out that there’s not going to be a boat. In fact, there might not be a boat until Sunday. I have a flight home on Friday. Greg has a flight on Saturday. This is unacceptable. Was this risk in the fine print of the waiver we signed at Island Packers? Probably. But who reads the fine print? Not even future law school students read the fine print.

We’d packed up our tent in the faint hope that we would be headed home on time, and we weren’t about to set it up again. That would’ve been too depressing. Instead, we headed up to the ranger station with the thirteen other survivors. No ranger? No problem. We walked right in, set up shop in the several bunkhouses comprising the compound, and raided the kitchen because there was no way we weren’t going to eat the unopened chunky peanut butter in the pantry when we had barely packed enough food for two days.

Did we play things up a little bit? As much as possible. We were stranded, yes, but there’s a difference between actually being stranded and merely having a wrench thrown in your plans. The following amenities were available to us at the ranger station:

  • A radio and a satellite phone
  • Free wifi to live tweet the situation and convince our families that we weren’t going to die
  • Leather recliners in front of a TV equipped with a VCR/DVD combo player and DISH
  • A selection of movies including Learning Morse Code, Eye Injuries, and The Princess Diaries
  • Trivial Pursuit, the 1981 version (the only version?)

We decided to take our chances with DISH at first and ended up with Men In Black II, which ended up mostly playing in the background as we got to know our fellow strandees and my dad sent me obnoxious iMessages comparing each person to an analogue on Gilligan’s Island. There was a middle-aged brother and sister from Alaska with the sister’s 17-year-old son, who was wearing a sleeping bag-coat hybrid; there were a thirty-something brother and sister with their spouses; there were a Mormon father and son who had packed coolers of food to sustain their hyper-vegan diet (no processed or frozen foods, no oils, no fun); there were three girls in their mid-late 20s who had to change their flights; and there was a lone wolf from Boston who took on the role of grizzled, helpful survival vet. A negative Nancy could’ve ruined the vibe, a single annoying douche could’ve made our stay on Santa Cruz a living hell…but fortunately, everyone got along perfectly well. Pro tip: if you’re ever stranded on an island, eat the negative Nancies and annoying douches first, so that your group becomes harmonious and in touch with the chi.

The eagle in our bunk did his best to keep our spirits up.

The eagle in our bunk did his best to keep our spirits up.

Fast forward through MIIB, the most recent Indiana Jones movie and our third backpackers’ meal (they were all surprisingly delicious, though context helped), and a group of us is playing Trivial Pursuit on the floor because we were in a living room and you stay up later if you have a living room. Had we still been in a tent, we almost certainly would’ve gone to bed shortly after sunset, like humans used to do (and probably still should). Instead, we were struggling through a hobnob of arcane cultural references and oddly specific questions. “What happened eighteen minutes past five in the evening on November 9th, 1965?” I don’t know, some old man in Queens farted and his underwear got a little dirty? No, turns out “the lights went out.”

At one point, the game was openly mocking us. The question posed to me: “What part of Britain did the Nazis occupy during WWII?” None, I answered. Churchill defended his island, no matter what the cost. Of course, that wasn’t the answer.

“The Channel Islands.”

A big ol’ FUCK YOU from Santa Cruz to all of us.

Greg went next and hit on a geography question, which I asked him. “What consists of Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, and Sark?” I had to stifle my laughter in my arm, because I knew what the answer was even before looking at the reverse side of the card. Greg didn’t, so I told him.

“The Channel Islands.”

I don’t believe in fate or a higher power, but if I did, this sure as hell would’ve been a sign.

It really wasn’t worth it to continue after that. So we all went to bed and listened to the wind try to blow our cabins down all night, as if the Big Bad Wolf had mastered circular breathing.

The next morning, we radioed into land and found out a boat was braving eleven-foot swells to come get us. It did feel pretty badass to tiptoe across the damaged pier, the ocean visible at spots below it, to board our vessel, and watching dolphins jump our wake as we slogged back across the Santa Barbara Channel gave me a sense of almost cartoonish blessedness. It was too perfect…this had all been too easy. Greg and I “rewarded ourselves” with probably two thousand calories each at The Habit Burger in Ventura, but for what? For sitting around in a cozy living room and acting like we were hardcore pioneers?

Rescued.

Rescued.

It’s been about a week since my return to the mainland, and if there’s anything I learned from my faux-harrowing encounter, it’s that it’s so easy to make a much bigger deal out of things than they deserve. Sometimes it’s fun, like when you’re making-believe that you’re some real-life LOST crew and you’ll be needing to fight off The Others and a smoke monster. But other times, like when college students allow legitimate gripes with their campuses to become all-consuming and self-destructive, it becomes clear that our tendency to catastrophize setbacks probably isn’t the most helpful thing in the world. Exaggerating after the fact for a good story is one thing; exaggerating during the events that comprise the eventual story is another.

Just like probably anyone reading this, I’ve had a few disappointments over the past month. A Kickstarter for a webseries I was trying to produce failed to reach its fundraising goal. I was supposed to see a screenplay I co-wrote made into a film this week, but the director had to leave the project. And I’ve wasted a ton of time overall, wiling away hours on sports website comment sections and the dark bowels of YouTube when I could have been writing or consuming more rewarding pop culture. But they’re all just small bumps in a road that will certainly have its share of peaks and valleys before it inevitably plunges into eternal darkness. Freaking out about them won’t solve anything, and in fact will get in the way of my ability to experience life as it happens.

Besides, it’s hard to think of anything as a huge deal when I have a cousin who’s locked in the daily battle of serious addiction recovery.

With that in mind, my New Year’s Resolution is to take things in stride. That isn’t to say that nothing’s a big deal, or that a stoic perspective is the way to navigate through an inherently meaningless universe…rather, it’s about managing your freakouts, spending your emotional capital on the right things, and always keeping in mind the story you’ll tell about the present. It’s the sort of lifestyle that keeps your battery fully charged at all times.

 

 

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Live In The Moment At Concerts (Because Writers Can’t)

Aside from the fact that her hand was in my way...this girl had been recording for OVER A MINUTE. How much did she miss out on?!

Mediated art: Aside from the fact that her hand was in my way…this girl had been recording for OVER A MINUTE. How much did she miss out on?!

They were the most stereotypical punk couple I had ever seen. The guy rocked a studded leather jacket with chains protruding from his pockets. The girl had as many piercings in her face as tattoos on her arms and chest—which is to say, more than she could count on her black-painted fingernails. And they were going absolutely nuts to the crazed music of Oklahoma-based garage rockers BRONCHO.

One part of me was terrified for my brain as I ducked the guy’s flying elbows. Another part of me was annoyed, because as hard as it already is to take notes at a concert in the dark, it’s even harder when someone’s smacking into your arm every few seconds. My music-reviewing handwriting usually comes out somewhere between a drug prescription and a first grader going sans pencil grippie for the first time; this night, I essentially scribbled out an EKG of the punks’ dance energy. If the purpose of note taking is to write down specific occurrences from a band’s performance, then I had cramped up my hand for no reason.

But as I decompressed in bed later that night, away from the sweat-soaked floor of Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, a different feeling washed over me: gratitude. Gratitude at the ecstasy of the dancers, who were so completely lost in the music that they made no notice of their immediate surroundings (read: me). Gratitude at the group of eight or so yuppies shaking and shimmying for the entirety of the opening band’s set. But most of all, gratitude at the lack of damn cell phones in hand at all times.

It happens at nearly every notable concert I attend, and it eats away at me. Instead of dancing to songs that were meant for dancing, people in the midst of the general admission throng stand as still as they possibly can (not very, given the hubbub of the setting) and loft their Galaxy S4s and iPhone 6Ss skyward to capture as many moments as possible for posterity. Maybe they’ll Snapchat the anthemic choruses to their friends, or post an Instagram clip of the amazing drop or guitar solo expecting to rake in at least a hundred likes. Maybe they just want something to watch the next day as they’re coming down from the emotional high of the previous evening.

To some extent, I’m fine with that. The sensory aspects of memory respond powerfully to pictures and videos that allow us to relive amazing moments of our lives. We can revive some of those indelible feelings, recapture an afterglow of elation, and reminisce on the already happy past with rose-colored lenses. Pride plays a role as well, as we incorporate the experiences into our sense of self and share them with friends as if we’re somehow better people for having been there.

But in the process of recording the present for the future’s sake, what do we miss in the present?

Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of music as the artistic expression of the Dionysian, the formless, abyssal life force that aches to direct human action. The Dionysian cannot be contained within the boundaries of a self, or transcendent value, or time—it’s spontaneous, it’s life-affirming, it’s completely within the moment. Stepping out of the immersive, ecstatic experience of a concert to document the moment in the permanent form of a picture or video is a denial of the music’s very life energy. And if you’re not experiencing the music in full, if you wrench yourself away with an eye on social media or later viewing pleasure, your memory of the show—both in your mind and in your smartphone—will not make up for the fact that you didn’t make the most of the moment.

This is a notion I struggle with any time I’m on the job. Do I look down at my notepad to ensure that I’ll be able to recount the setlist in detail and risk missing a frontman’s priceless facial expression? When I snap a picture and view the concert through the camera’s eye, even for a few seconds at a time, can I adequately track the stream of emotions the music evokes in me? How can I even review a concert accurately when the very act of review not only can never recreate the experience, but actually changes the experience by putting it through the filter of my hippocampus? I do my best to strike a balance, keeping one foot in the sonic river and one foot on the dry bank of objectivity—after all, the people who will read the review weren’t at the show, so I need a taste of outside perspective to do them justice.

I wonder how other journalists feel when they cover a live event, particularly in an age when they’re expected to keep one hand on their Twitter at all times. Social media has made it much easier to follow along with breaking news from home, but would we get a more accurate and more valuable narrative if we allowed our reporters to submerge themselves in the present and then churn out the story later, in a time of reflection?

Unfortunately, it’s part of the writer’s credo to live in the present and the future simultaneously. This is not required of concertgoers. And yet so many choose to eschew the glorious ecstasy of the moment for the translucent idea of collecting artifacts. By using a recording to supplement memory, they sacrifice the true timelessness of the experience.

I envy the punks who were able to lose themselves in dance at the BRONCHO show. I just wish more people would follow their lead.

leonard fournette, lsu, nfl draft, nick chubb, injury, ohl, junior hockey

The NFL Must Adopt An Exceptional Player Status

leonard fournette, lsu, nfl draft, nick chubb, injury, ohl, junior hockey

Leonard Fournette is an exceptional player and should be treated as such. (Photo courtesy of Fox Sports)

It happened again yesterday. In a game as brutal as football, we shouldn’t be surprised that it continues to happen.

Nick Chubb, the brilliant sophomore running back for the University of Georgia, was tackled on his first run against the Tennessee Volunteers, and his knee bent in a way that knees should never, ever bend. His face crumpled in pain and utter despair just as quickly as his body crumpled to the ground. Courtesy of the 423,801 reposts of the video on Twitter, everyone knows that Chubb probably shredded every ligament and will likely face a long, uphill battle if he ever wants to play football again, let alone reach his pre-injury skill level.

But much of the reaction on the internet was focused not on Chubb—a supreme talent in his own right, in fact a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite—but on LSU’s Leonard Fournette, another sophomore running back who has rattled off an almost unheard-of string of dominant performances over the past month. Based on scouts’ analysis, he could be a difference maker in the National Football League if he turned pro today. And every chronicle of his personality, including this feature by ESPN’s Ivan Maisel, paints a picture of a man who both looks and acts well beyond his years. For instance, he doesn’t drink or smoke, unusual among college athletes, and last year gave up fried foods.

Yet Leonard Fournette will not be able to make money from his football abilities until the 2017 NFL season. It seems unfair to force Fournette to put extra mileage on his legs without any return for his efforts, particularly when a single unfortunate hit at any point over the next two years could wipe out all of his earning potential.

Writers and analysts have fallen on both sides of this issue. Newsweek’s John Walters called Fournette’s lack of ability to make his own decision patronizing and “un-American,” and claimed that there’s hypocrisy in not attacking the decisions of spectacular young tennis, golf, and hockey pros who forgo college. Meanwhile, Christine Brennan, writing in USA Today last week, argued that no 20-year-old football player is prepared for the physical and mental rigors of the NFL. “I would still rather put the fate of Fournette and talented phenoms like him into the hands of officials of our athletic-academic industrial complex than I would into the hands of agents — some good, some not — who would be leading their change into the NFL,” she wrote.

Brennan concludes her piece by stating, “Waiting for anything is difficult in 21st century America, yet they know there are going to be no exceptions to this rule, even for the most exceptional among us.” But why can’t there be exceptions? There’s precedent in another sport for players of extraordinary ability and character to gain access to the next level a year early: Canadian major junior hockey.

One reason that NHL players are most often ready to become professionals at age 18 is that they’ve already been playing in a quasi-professional environment for two years prior to their draft eligibility. Junior hockey in Canada is akin to college football here—teams attract huge crowds, players balance travel and practice with schoolwork, and they make no money for their efforts. It forces players to grow up quickly, which is why the minimum age for major junior hockey players in Canada is 16.

Unless you’re an especially remarkable talent. If you are—as Connor McDavid, the next coming of Sidney Crosby, was in 2012 or last season’s Calder Trophy winner Aaron Ekblad was in 2011—you can be granted “exceptional player status” by the Ontario Hockey League or the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, which allows you to begin playing at age 15. The process is rigorous. Hockey Canada assembles a Special Evaluation Panel to examine all aspects of your life, from your skill on the ice to your maturity off it, and comes to a decision on whether or not you qualify as “exceptional.” So far, only five players have ever been granted exceptional player status.

Admittance into junior hockey isn’t the same as admittance into the NFL, to be sure. But the fact that there is a process that offers unfettered growth for the rare player who deserves the opportunity to move ahead seems absolutely fair. Not every young person develops at the same rate—academically, athletically, maturity-wise—and although in general the three-year rule for the NFL might be a good limitation to ensure that rookies are physically and mentally ready to play professional football, it clips the wings of the occasional prodigy who has demonstrated readiness earlier.

Putting together a Special Evaluation Panel wouldn’t be hard for the NFL to do, given the league’s vast array of scouts. Players could apply for early draft entry and be placed under extensive review by the panel, which like its analog in Hockey Canada would examine both on and off-field factors to determine exceptional status. Each year, one player could be offered early draft entry. If such a rule existed this year, I’m nearly certain that Leonard Fournette would be granted exceptional player status and have one fewer year of terrifying gauntlets between him and financial security for the rest of his life.

To his credit, Fournette has stated his desire to remain at school. But seeing Nick Chubb go down yesterday had to serve as a reminder of how fragile his future is. And every additional game that he spends electrifying college football fans holds him back from reaching his true potential—perhaps, if he gets unlucky, forever.

Leonard Fournette is, by all accounts, an exceptional football player and human being. The NFL should treat him as such and ensure that he makes it to the league with his body and earning power intact.

Kanye Is Reviving 808s For A Reason: To Remind Us (and Drake) Who’s The King Of Rap

When I awoke yesterday, I checked my Twitter feed, as I normally do.  My day was instantly brightened:

Screen Shot 2015-10-03 at 10.06.41 AM

If you’ve read this blog before, you love that I love Yeezy.  I would go to the edge of the earth to protect his unfiltered genius.  He’s earned his right to an ego, and in an era when many celebrities seem afraid to express real thoughts, Kanye seems authentic and speaks his mind (but not in a hateful, Trump-ian way).  The last time I saw him live was at the United Center in Chicago–where this new show would be taking place–and I nearly cried tears of joy.

Then, a few hours later, I got some real bad news:

Screen Shot 2015-10-03 at 10.11.53 AM

But my ‘Ye train of thought was still chugging down the tracks.  I began to wonder about this whole affair, and what might be going through the mind of Kanye West right now.

This would’ve been the third 808s show of the year.  He played the album front to back at the Hollywood Bowl twice last month, and it featured all the over-the-top trappings we’ve come to expect from Kanye’s live shows–fireworks, a full string orchestra, an eerie troop of whiteface men whose main purpose seemed to be artistic intimidation.  And because this was 808s, Kanye sang the entire time.  This despite him and the rest of the world knowing that Kanye West is an objectively terrible singer.  He has to know that, right?

But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Kanye has chosen this moment to remind the world that 808s and Heartbreak exists.  The album, which debuted to very mixed reviews in 2008, is in the midst of a vast critical reappraisal.  From the LA Times, in advance of his performance of the album at the Bowl:

“West’s 2008 LP “808s & Heartbreak,” with its mix of emotional devastation and frosty minimal electronics, has turned out to be one of the most influential albums of contemporary pop music.”

Pitchfork’s hip hop critic Jayson Greene also wrote a magnificent retrospective on the album last month, stating, “Contemporary R&B would not glower at us from beneath a cloud of discontent and painkillers if not for 808s…West, then as now the most fascinating, celebrated, and scrutinized egomaniac in pop culture, managed to perform emotional vulnerability without necessarily demonstrating it”

If we regard Kanye West as a genius (and by all rights we should), 808s is the album that cements that legacy.  My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy may be viewed as his magnum opus, one of the best albums of the past twenty-five years, but it’s brilliant because of the tale of self-overcoming he spins in tracks like “POWER” and “Runaway” interwoven with stunning production and commentary on the status of blacks in America.  If MBDTF is Kanye at peak Kanye, 808s is Kanye at peak artistic influence.

And he needs to remind everyone of this.  On the whole, Kanye has had an up-and-down 2015.  He kicked it off with a bang when he dropped “Only One” as a surprise on New Years.  Finally, listeners got a taste of the fruits that had come of his long-reported collaborations with Paul McCartney.  Another of these fruits, “FourFiveSeconds,” gave Yeezy his biggest hit since “Heartless.”  And yet another, “All Day,” gave us the most frightening, mesmerizing, show-stopping live awards show performance of the year.  Meanwhile, Kanye’s fashion work is starting to gain relevance despite its detractors, and his speech at the VMAs will absolutely go down in history as one of the best of all time–call it rambling, call it the ravings of a lunatic, but it was ART, man.  #Kanye2020.

But there was the ignominious beef that Kanye started with Beck at the Grammys.  That knocked him down a few pegs, a throwback to the nadir of the 2009 VMAs.  And everything I’ve mentioned has taken place against the backdrop of Kanye’s mysterious eighth studio album, which keeps getting pushed back and back.  It was going to be called So Help Me God, and now it’s going to be called SWISHbut still the record shows no signs of appearing anytime soon.  That makes me think that either Kanye is simply focused on other things–totally acceptable, if slightly disappointing–or he’s hit a creative roadblock and can’t work around it just yet.

Meanwhile, Drake has taken advantage of the gap in Kanye’s releases to establish himself as the current king of hip hop.  A week ago, a friend of mine posted the following image in a GroupMe I’m in where all the members just talk about music (it’s awesome, by the way):

Screen Shot 2015-10-03 at 11.02.47 AM

And that’s not to mention the success of If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late, and it’s also not to mention the impending release of Views From The Six, which will surely take the rap world by storm.  Fetty Wap and his bouncy summer positivity will probably be wiped from the public consciousness.

Drake is in the middle of a nearly unprecedented run of success that dates back almost to the start of his career.  It’s probably fair to call him the best hip hop artist in the game right now.  And if there’s one thing we know about Kanye, it’s that no one else but Kanye can be the best.

So if you’re Kanye and you want to usurp the current king and take back your throne without releasing an album to do so, what’s your best plan of action?  Remind him that you’re the reason for his success.  Without 808s, there’s no Drake.  There’s no The Weeknd.  There’s no Cudi.  There’s no Frank Ocean.  Critics often revisit the work of unknown, failed artists years later and crown them as major influencers once the artists are old or dead and can’t even fully reap the benefits of their newly minted masterpieces–think The Velvet Underground and Nico.  But in this case, it’s happening to an artist who is very much still in his prime, the most self-conscious man in music, a man who knows exactly what he’s doing and is going to take full advantage of having yet another of his pieces elevated to legend status.

That’s why Kanye is bringing back 808s.  It’s a feather in his 2015 cap that’s finally reached full bloom after seven years.  And because he’s Kanye, the world’s greatest living paradox, a man who claims to not care what anyone thinks of him but repeatedly contradicts that statement, that feather needs to be rubbed in the nose of anyone who thinks they’ve taken his place as the ruler of the hip hop world.

Now if only he’d bring 808s home to Chicago.  (I’m still holding out hope.)

The Evolution of Randy Marsh, South Park’s Undisputed Star

It’s hard to believe that South Park is gearing up for its 19th season, which starts on Wednesday.  When the show premiered in 1997, the following were true:

  • Hillary Clinton’s greatest challenge was her president husband’s adultery, email servers being hardly a thing.
  • Tiger Woods had just won his first Masters and probably didn’t even know what sex was.
  • My favorite TV show was Barney, and I’d go approximately the next ten years without watching a single episode of South Park.

The early episodes of South Park are legendary for their crudeness, both in construction paper animation quality and the characteristic “toilet” humor that the show expertly meta-lampooned with Terrance and Philip, starting a long tradition of firing back at critics.  No one had ever seen a television program with so little reverence and so much cultural allusion, stuffed with absurd situations and yet simultaneously tackling important issues such as gay rights, assisted suicide, and censorship.  All these years later, South Park still has those traits and, more importantly, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have remained funny and fresh.

But there’s no denying that the show, despite its continued relevance as social satire, has changed profoundly since its inception, most notably through a style shift from the playful faux-innocence of the early seasons to the more mature (can South Park be mature?) self-awareness of more recent episodes.  The old absurdity is still there—what other show would explain Obama’s reelection as part of a Chinese plan to acquire the rights to Star Wars?—but it’s gained a theatrical element, with everything from the increased use of dramatic music to über-sincere politicians and businessmen contributing to the new vibe.  An episode like Season 16’s “Faith Hilling,” with an emphasis on modern media and the presence of earnest yet clueless governmental agents creating pointless tension, is par for South Park’s modern course—ridiculous, caustic, but definitely world-weary.

A huge part of what made the show so funny from the start was that its stars were four potty-mouthed third-graders whose otherwise naïveté allowed them to see the world more clearly than the batshit crazy adults around them.  But then Cartman became a downright evil and manipulative sociopath, Stan and Kyle dealt with some serious issues that probably made them more cynical (in Stan’s case, we know he’s become more cynical), and Butters Stotch arrived on the scene as an even more naïve character to take their place.

The most essential player in South Park’s shift, though, has been Randy Marsh.

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“Well hello there children!”

His rise in prominence is only rivaled by that of Butters and was driven by the need to fill the role of featured adult.  Mr. Garrison and Chef, formerly the most insane and reasonable people on the show respectively, jointly held that title for most of South Park’s first decade.  But Mr. Garrison hasn’t been terribly interesting since his reversion to male in “Eek! A Penis,” when the sexual confusion and compensatory bigotry that made him shine were finally resolved.  And Chef was last seen shitting his pants in death after falling off a cliff in Season 10’s premiere (courtesy of Isaac Hayes taking offense to the notorious “Trapped in the Closet”).

With their decline, Randy stepped to the forefront and brought neither the former’s repressed sexuality or the latter’s clear rationality, replacing them with a middle-aged neurosis that undoubtedly has its roots in Parker and Stone’s own aging.  They were in the 20s when they created South Park, as were many of the show’s original fans, and they’ve had to find ways to maintain a vigorous passion despite the wearying passage of time and expending energy on other incredible projects like The Book of Mormon.  Randy is the cartoon manifestation of that struggle.  His zany ideas and obsessions nearly always carry the distinct undertone of an attempt to recapture the lack of responsibility and immaturity that define childhood.  And regardless of what’s happening in the realm of current events, Randy’s often urging for simple, irrational solutions that harken back to easier days.  While Stan and his friends see the world for what it really is and behave accordingly, Randy is the part of us that lives in fantasy land and wants nothing more than to spend all our time there.  And over the past several years, that desire has resonated more powerfully with both audiences and with Parker and Stone, who have used Randy at an increasing rate as the centerpiece of their episodes.

Much to Stan's surprise, RANDY IS LORDE.

Much to Stan’s surprise, RANDY IS LORDE.

It’s gotten to the point where Randy Marsh can and should be called the star of South Park.  He was voted by the show’s fans as the 2015 BRO DOWN Champion (essentially their favorite character), narrowly beating Cartman.  He’s been a regular participant in the show’s most memorable moments of the past five years.  Over the past two seasons’ twenty episodes, nearly half have featured Randy as a main character—and even in bit parts he nonetheless manages to steal the spotlight.  For example, the main plot of last year’s episode “The Cissy” was forgettable (Cartman put his typical selfish twist on transgender rights), but it will forever be known as the birthplace of the “Randy is Lorde” storyline that made waves on global social media.  Individual episodes as a whole might generate more buzz on a case-by-case basis (“200-201,” “World War Zimmerman,” and “Go Fund Yourself” are among the more recent ones to incite heavy responses), but Randy is single-handedly able to create memorable moments in a way that no other character can really accomplish—not even Cartman and Butters, whose shtick has grown a little boring.

Of course, a superstar is not born overnight.  Randy has been built into his current dominant, relatable self over the long course of South Park, and I went back and tracked every significant episode in his development to try to determine how, why, and when he dethroned Eric Cartman as the emblematic character of the show.

Randy Marsh first appeared in “Volcano,” the third episode of the entire series, as the town geologist.

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His first line, as he spotted the wildly gesticulating needle of the seismograph: “What the heck is this?”  There was already characteristic Randy stupidity, as he called “Frank” and asked what the moving needle meant.  But then he went away for the rest of the episode, which stars Jimbo and Ned (both of whom have faded into the background in recent years) alongside the boys.

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Randy the hip divorcée.

He was first identified as Stan’s dad in “An Elephant Makes Love To A Pig,” two episodes later, but this didn’t become significant until Season Two’s “Clubhouses,” Randy’s debut significant role.  And even then, he was present mostly through his absence, as his separation from Sharon created an inconvenience for Stan, who had to deal with his mom’s new partner Roy.  This wasn’t remotely similar to the separation Randy and Sharon undergo in Season 15’s “You’re Getting Old,” which posed an existential threat to the show’s universe.  Still, though, we got to see Randy driving a convertible and rediscovering his glory days with an interest in younger women.  More importantly, we saw that he and Sharon have a rollercoaster relationship whose hills and valleys are only exacerbated by his ridiculousness.

Randy had two major appearances in Season 3: “Spontaneous Combustion” and “Two Guys Naked In A Hot Tub.”  In the first of these, he presented the absurd strategy of farting more as the solution to South Park’s burning issue, but it feels like a conclusion any Parker and Stone-created scientist would reach—there’s no classic Randy ridiculousness or obsession, and to boot he’s totally overshadowed by a crucified Cartman in this episode.  In the latter episode, Randy and Gerald Broflovski masturbated in front of each other, creating an awkward situation that explored men’s comfort with their sexuality, but once again it wasn’t particularly definitive of Randy’s character (except perhaps laying foundations of his insecurity).  In a later season, Stephen Stotch probably would have fit the scenario better.

The first “classic” Randy moment didn’t come until Season 4’s “Something You Can Do With Your Finger.”

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Finally we get some absurd anger over a trivial subject; finally we get Randy slipping into an alter ego that takes him back twenty years; finally Randy himself is the inanity in the episode.  He even has a trademark freakout when he discovers that Stan was continuing to sing in Fingerbang even after Randy had forbidden it.  But the most crucial aspect of this episode is that after Randy tells his son all about The Ghetto Avenue Boyz’ rise and demise, he says, “Now I’m a joke.”  This is the real root of Randy’s fantasy-laden antics that have driven his character for the past fifteen years: a profound uncertainty of his place in the world, in his marriage, and in his purpose.  His attempts to escape these doubts lead him to delve into obsessions and take up disparate personas, fulfilling the very real dream of forfeiting all responsibility and returning to childhood that exists within a huge segment of the adult male population that watches South Park.  The only unifying value he seems to hold across his wide world of shenaniganery is his desire to be a good father to Stan and Shelley—again, something much of the audience probably holds dear—alternating between strict discipline and joining his son in pseudo-youth.  In “Something You Can Do With Your Finger,” Randy puts both tactics on display, moving from immovable, unexplained fury at Stan to joining Fingerbang onstage at the mall.

The other great source of South Park's continued self-reinvention.

The other great source of South Park’s continued self-reinvention.

So, at long last, Randy was on track to becoming Randy.  But it still took awhile for his personality to gain a significant presence for a few reasons.  Seasons 5-9 saw Butters ascend to prominence—probably the single greatest character decision Trey and Matt have made, because not only did Butters’ role as outcast/bitch of the group add enormous comedic value, but he also gave Cartman a natural pawn and serial victim just as he was morphing into the sociopath we know today.  The Cartman-Butters dynamic was, at its peak, a guarantee for a classic episode whenever it was featured (“Casa Bonita,” “AWESOM-O,” “The Death of Eric Cartman,” et cetera).  And even when the show focused on adult characters, Mr. Garrison and Chef still received most of the attention—this was the era of Mr. Slave, the most ridiculous human character conceived in the show’s history, and Chef therefore had all the more reason to play the voice of reason.  Randy did get a few shining moments in this period of South Park:

But Season 9 was where Randy first started to prove that he could carry an episode on his own, first in “The Losing Edge” and then in “Bloody Mary.”  The former, even with a hysterically funny A-plot that featured Kyle’s cousin Kyle brought in to help the boys’ baseball team lose, completely unleashed Randy’s potential as a moronic lead.  It also gave us his first truly memorable quote, and arguably his most memorable to this day:

And “Bloody Mary,” in which Randy was diagnosed as an alcoholic, hypochondriacally interpreted it as terminal-type illness to rationalize his continued drinking, and finally was “cured” by a statue of Virgin Mary that bled from its ass/vagina, took Randy’s previously demonstrated puerility and focused the plot entirely on it for the first time in the show’s history.  All the elements of his personality—his tendency to obsession and overreaction, his penchant for booze, his rocky relationship with his family despite that often leads to desperate attempts to connect with Stan and Sharon—were put on full display, and it worked.  Yet “Bloody Mary” isn’t quite as venerated in the South Park pantheon as later Randy-centric episodes, most likely because it became most notable not for its focus on Randy but for the backlash it caused in the Catholic community.  In retrospect, it capped off a particularly offensive and impactful run of shows in late 2005 that included “Ginger Kids” and “Trapped in the Closet,” two of the most influential episodes in South Park history in terms of societal effect.

Still, though, the foundation for Randy’s rise had been laid, and over the next few seasons he continued his upward development.  He was the cherry on top of Season 10’s “Make Love Not Warcraft,” with his dying cry of “STANNNNNNN” echoing into the halls of TV eternity.  He played an even more consistent role in Season 11, scoring a couple of amazing features in “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson” and “More Crap” alongside beautiful bit parts that involved him blowing a guy’s head off with a shotgun, taking Stan to a secret cult of bunny-worshippers, and getting addicted to everyone’s favorite video game, Heroin Hero.  By the end of Season 12, which had seen him both take his family out to California only to end up soaking a room with ectoplasm and celebrate Obama in the amazing 2008 election special, his importance to South Park’s humor was undeniable.  “Randy episodes” were lauded by fans and critics alike and served as the highlights of what would be a slight decline in the show’s quality over Seasons 13 and 14–“200” and “201” were highly controversial but not all that funny, “The Coon” trilogy didn’t hold a candle to the three parts of “Imaginationland,” and South Park’s tropes started to feel a little stale.

Then “You’re Getting Old” happened, and all of a sudden Randy Marsh gained surprising new depth behind his antics. We got to see him break out the Steamy Ray Vaughn persona, alternately farting and playing guitar in perhaps his most insane attempt at grasping back for lost youth.

But far more significant was his conversation with Sharon after she catches him doing it:

Sharon: You do this all the time! First you’re obsessed with baseball fights! Then you need to play Warcraft! Then you gotta be a celebrity chef!

Randy: Why can’t you ever just support me?!

Sharon: Support what?! Another stupid dream of yours?!

Randy: Face it Sharon, our son turned 10 and you feel old!

Sharon: WHAT does our son turning 10 have to do with you making the same mistakes again and again?!

Randy: Because I’m unhappy, okay?! I’ve been unhappy for a long time! [Sharon reflects on this for a moment and her voice goes soft]

Sharon: I’m unhappy too. We both are, obviously. How much longer can we keep doing this? It’s like, the same shit just happens over and over and, then in a week it just all resets until- it happens again. Every week it’s kind of the same story in a different way but it, it just keeps getting more and more ridiculous.

Randy: I don’t know if I’ve changed or you have. I just feel like I might not have a whole lot of time left and… I want to enjoy it.

Sharon: I want to enjoy it too, but… I can’t fake it anymore. You just seem kind of shitty to me.

Randy: You kind of seem shitty to me too.

Sharon: People get older, Randy. People grow apart.

These are the sincerest lines Randy has spoken since “Something You Can Do With Your Finger.”  The gig is up and he finally must face the reality that’s been driving his increasingly asinine behavior: he can’t take the passage of time in stride.  With his son diagnosed as a “cynical asshole” and Sharon at long last fed up with him (she had hinted at this in “Medicinal Fried Chicken” and “Crème Fraiche,” two Randy episodes that held up Seasons 13 and 14), he’s caught in the middle, unable to connect with either.  For South Park’s longtime fans, the ones who had followed the show since their 20s and were facing these very same issues fifteen years later, this message had to hit home.  Even at age 19, I was moved by “You’re Getting Old,” and felt a sympathy for Randy that hadn’t existed when he was just a caricature.  The ending scene of the episode, with Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” playing as Randy moves out and Stan descends into a depression, generated feels that hadn’t been seen before and haven’t been seen since in the show’s universe.

In the aftermath of “You’re Getting Old,” South Park had the opportunity to move in an entirely different direction, one that would have involved a serialized plot and brought Stan and Randy’s existential crises to the forefront.  But in an indication of how important Randy had become to the show, Parker and Stone chose to ensure that he would continue to star by reverting back to the old status quo by the end of “Ass Burgers,” the very next episode.  In 2015, with so-called cartoon “sadcoms” like Bojack Horseman and Rick and Morty earning critical acclaim based on the combination of sincerity and cynicism displayed in “You’re Getting Old,” maybe Randy and Sharon would have stayed divorced and South Park would have found a way to evolve.  Animated television audiences were absolutely prepared for that to happen.  But instead, Randy got back together with Sharon, who resolved to deal with his ridiculousness, and he responded a few episodes later with “Broadway Bro Down,” in my estimation the most recent of South Park’s masterpieces.

The brodown to end all brodowns.

The brodown to end all brodowns.

This brings us, finally, to last year’s Season 18, which featured the serialization that many viewers thought would come after “You’re Getting Old.”  And Randy, from his Lorde impersonation/alter ego to his “cock magic” fascination, carried the show.  Cartman still had his moments and as always the current events references were on point, but there’s no way any other character could have put the show on their back the way Randy did.  They aren’t as deep, they aren’t as relevant to South Park’s audience, and, quite frankly, they aren’t as funny.

Given his recent hijinks, it’s amazing that just four years ago Randy Marsh was grappling openly with the underlying unhappiness that undoubtedly still lurks below everything he does.  But even though that anguishing moment has passed, the show’s fans can’t forget its impact on the depth of Randy’s character.  Everything he has done from that point forward, including his starring role in Season 18, takes place within the new paradigm of Randy’s desperate quixotic search for a lasting passion and his oft-conflicting desire to do what’s best for his family.  And that internal conflict comes with age, and it’s something that South Park and its fans have been dealing with for quite some time.  In a way, Randy has become a meta-character, the spirit of the show.  While Cartman, Kyle, Stan, and Kenny still get lots of screen time and make important points, none of the boys can reach the audience—or Parker and Stone—the way Randy can.  That’s what makes him the undisputed star of South Park.

No one knows what Comedy Central’s most dynamic duo has up their collective sleeve for Season 19 (and they’ve got no shortage of low-hanging fruit to pick).  But Randy Marsh gives us all a reason to be excited for it.

Bouncing off toward another great season.

Bouncing off toward another great season of South Park.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Almost Famous analysis

Almost Famous: A Nietzschean Lesson In Honesty

Penny Lane is already Dionysian, so she stays the same.

Penny Lane is already Dionysian, so she stays the same.

Song of the day: “Fever Dog” by Stillwater

For someone who held a “movie club” on Friday nights in high school because he didn’t roll with the partying crowd, I’ve become a surprisingly TV-focused guy over the past year. Movies take a lot more effort to watch since they aren’t packaged in convenient 23 or 41 minute chapters, and because my lack of a 9-to-5 job means that I essentially work seven days a week, I can rarely justify taking two or more hours out of my day to sit and consume visual culture. Sometimes, though, a life situation calls for a particularly special movie. In July, as I languished in Lake Tahoe without a clear passion or plan for the future, that movie was The Graduate. And last night, nearly two months into my career as a music journalist, that movie was Almost Famous.

What better movie for a music journalist to watch than one that tells the story of a fifteen-year-old writer who hits the road with one of his favorite bands? What better life could I imagine for myself than getting to experience every aspect of that band’s tour, from crazy parties in Topeka and Los Angeles to legendary performances in Cleveland and New York City, and having the chance to pick their brains about their songs and their lives? When I read that Cameron Crowe wrote Almost Famous as a semi-autobiographical tale, and that William Miller’s experiences are based on his own, I couldn’t help but feel more than a little jealous. The early 1970s were different times–before the blogosphere democratized the Internet, mega-amplified the supply of writers, and made it damn near impossible for people well out of high school to become paid contributors to any magazine, let alone Rolling Stone. Then again, reading about Crowe’s life and success in both journalism and screenwriting gave me another inspiring figure in my chase for the Dionysian.

I started watching Almost Famous around midnight, not expecting that it would run well over two and a half hours. But of all the late nights I’ve had over the past several years because I couldn’t shut off a screen, this was probably the most worthy. Not only did I take away some great lessons in journalism, but Nietzsche and his philosophy made their inevitable entry to my thoughts as the movie progressed.

Almost Famous is, first and foremost, a movie about truth. Literally so, as the first lines read:

Elaine: You want to be Atticus Finch. Oh, that makes me feel so good.

William: I like him.

Elaine: Why?

William: Well, he’s honest.

William Miller (Patrick Fugit) has been raised by his über-helicopter Elaine (Frances McDormand), who puts today’s “tiger moms” to shame, and early on in the film we find out that she’s lied to him about his age.  “Adolescence is a marketing tool,” she quips, defending her actions as her rebellious daughter Anita (a young and characteristically deadpan Zooey Deschanel) takes the opportunity to attack her. Elaine is a walking contradiction throughout much of the film: the college professor who flaunts her intelligence as proof that she is always right, yet is blinded by her own dogmatic views of the world and incapable of acknowledging her children’s ability to think independently and make their own decisions. Nominally in the pursuit of “truth” in her chosen profession, she’s willing to lie to her son to suit her own pathological need for his love and devotion. And when Elaine’s parenting tactics fail, she can’t accept the reality of her failure. “She’ll be back,” she remarks as Anita leaves home to become a stewardess. Even in the face of her daughter’s clear joie de vivre, Elaine remains convinced that her system of morals is correct and will prevail.

Of course, this thinking violates Friedrich Nietzsche’s dictums against any type of permanently held valuations. Nietzsche’s thought system is unique among philosophers in that it’s more of an anti-system, an encouragement to the constant creation and destruction of values and the free expression of life energy unfettered by preexisting people, beliefs, or experiences. Elaine can’t even grasp any sort of life that deviates from what her books and studies have taught her, as is evident in her consistent check-ins with William as he travels the country with Stillwater. She freaks the music world out with her intensity and feverish worry about 1) keeping William safe and 2) keeping his morals intact. The Stillwater tour isn’t a place where traditional morality has any sort of place, and she knows this–it’s a “Valhalla of decadence.”

How incredible it is, then, that Frances McDormand makes us feel for Elaine when she walks out of her classroom, and that in the end she actually welcomes the man who killed her son’s story into her house. I’ve always admired McDormand for her work in Fargo, but this performance I found more powerful.

On the whole, the guys in Stillwater aren’t particularly more thoughtful than any other early ’70s rock band. We do get to see Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) offer up a paraphrasing of Freud’s three-part psyche (or Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian):

On the whole, I’d say most of the fuck-ups in the world come from the brain and not the instincts. My whole thing is to try and make my brain go away but I can’t, except on-stage. The brain, I think, should be a softening influence on the instincts but the instincts should drive. Trying to reconcile the brain with urges that come out of millions of years ago. The way the brain interprets these instincts is… a heavy trip. Usually I’m brain and Russell is instincts. But on the days when we’re both instinct, that’s when we’ve made the music people know best, because… it’s the best.

But even though Bebe has identified this truism that Nietzsche first pointed out in The Birth of Tragedy, he utterly fails to overcome his brain and submit to the music. As a result, he comes across as a pretty petty guy, jealous of Hammond’s fame and skill and worried that he’s going to be left behind. Rather than trying to let the band’s stage relationship define their personal relationship, he puts things the other way around and as a result there’s tangible friction throughout the tour. William, the ever-present and omniscient observer, picks up on this natural struggle that accompanies any band’s growing fame–examples of intra-band rivalries abound, from The Beatles to Van Halen to Duran Duran, and they need to be overcome if the group is to survive.

The way to overcome these difficulties jives with Nietzsche’s approach to friendship: that friends exist to challenge and encourage one another in the process of self-overcoming. In the context of a band, which exists based on the Dionysian art form of music–throughout the movie, we see Stillwater spontaneously breaking into song, most notably Dr. Hook’s “The Cover of the Rolling Stone”–the self-overcoming happens when the members fully immerse themselves in the emotions that come from their songs and the settings that contribute to their performance. I think Nietzsche would have loved various aspects of the rock star life Stillwater leads on the road, particularly the complete loss of self that Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) experiences after he drinks LSD-laced beer at a party in Topeka. But he would have criticized the aspects of that lifestyle that lead to the members’ self-dishonesty: the ego-driven infighting, the concern with money that Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon) expertly exposes within them after their Cleveland show, and above all their all-consuming desire to look “cool.”

Russell Hammond epitomizes “cool,” from his soft, sensual eyes and his expert guitaristy to his casual galavanting at various parties and easy deferrals of William’s interview requests. And his “cool” factor has attracted the adoration of Almost Famous‘ most enduring character, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson in her breakout role). Penny lives in a world of fantasy, consistently talking about the “real world” and desire to move to Morocco once she retires from the groupie life. She possesses an imagination and a romance that can’t help but inspire everyone she encounters; she’s the personification of rock and roll’s glorious escapism, Hammond’s on-the-road girlfriend who far exceeds his other flings and William’s goddess of music, which is his religion. The only trouble with Penny Lane is that she’s incapable of grasping reality.

Penny: Why are you yelling at me?

William: I thought we were going to Morocco! There’s no Morocco. There’s never been a Morocco. There’s not even a Penny Lane. I don’t even know your real name.

Penny: If I ever met a guy in the real world, who looked at me the way you just looked at me…

William: When and where does the real world occur? I am…really confused here.  All these rules and all these saying…and nicknames…

Penny: Honey, you’re too sweet for rock and roll.

This happens just before William reveals that Hammond has sold Penny to Humble Pie for “fifty dollars and a case of beer,” a truth that finally begins to crack her. Imagination is vital to a fulfilling life, but untempered by a grounding in the “real world,” it inevitably causes a terrifying and crushing nihilism. Who is Penny Lane? She fancies herself the spirit of rock and roll, the greatest fan in the world (which she is)…but in the end she’s being called “that groupie” by Bebe when the band thinks they’re about to die in a plane crash. As much as Hammond realizes he needs her presence to be inspired–in their phone reconciliation, he tells her, “I’m never as good as when you’re there, and I can see myself, the way you look at me…and I’m sorry”–she needs him to allow for her flight from the pressures of time, obligations, and anything else “normal” people face on a daily basis. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard writes about achieving the balance between the infinite and the finite as a necessary aspect of reconciling the self with itself and creating harmony. Penny, though doesn’t have a finite self. She has no conception of the requirement for life’s energy to be put into form–Nietzsche’s definition of the Apollonian–outside of an assumed name. The result is heartbreak when her romance comes to an end and, with it, the miracle of the Stillwater tour.

It’s left to William to be the voice of truth who reconciles the band and Penny with themselves, putting them in touch with authenticity and enabling their self-overcoming. At the beginning of his assignment with the band, he’s given a simple directive by Hammond: “Just make us look cool.” And he’s more than willing to oblige, since he’s a huge fan of Stillwater. But he’s too astute not to notice the internal differences threatening to tear the band apart, and his love for Penny, his rock and roll angel, is too strong for him to just let the band off easy when they show their true apathy towards her on their plane ride from hell. So begins a struggle within the young writer; he loves the band, and he loves being friends with them, but that friendship is predicated on pandering to the image they want to uphold in the piece he writes about them for Rolling Stone. And even though he’s honest with Hammond and the others in private conversation, exposing the truth of what happened on their tour to the public would likely spell the end of his relationship with Stillwater. In need of advice at the eleventh hour as he’s finishing his feature, he calls Lester Bangs (a typically perfect Philip Seymour Hoffman), who offers him the best tips on friendship and rock journalism I’ve ever heard:

See, friendship is the booze they feed you. They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong. They make you feel cool. And hey, I met you. You are not cool…I know you think these guys are your friends. But if you want to be a real friend to them–be honest and unmerciful.

In writing and in life, it’s tough to be honest and unmerciful. I’m friends with people because I like them and they like me, and saying anything that could be hurtful is not something I ever like to do. This truth rings especially strong in my journalistic exploits, where I’m always wary of the effect that a negative review will have on my ability to access bands and get better stories. Being called “The Enemy,” a moniker that Stillwater imposes on William (first jokingly, then endearingly, then finally sincerely after they read his brutally honest “think piece” on them), isn’t a nice distinction. But honesty lies at the core of Nietzsche’s anti-system. It’s impossible to self-overcome without the ability to acknowledge your own flaws, and it’s impossible to encourage and challenge your friends to self-overcome without acknowledging theirs. The übermensch is brave in that he expresses life energy through all moments of life–the happy, the sad, the bitter, the angry, the ecstatic–and affirms everything that happened, even going so far as to will that the course of events that has occurred should occur over and over again into eternity.

That William eventually writes the piece he does, and that Stillwater eventually decides to do him right and admit that his facts are correct, is central to Almost Famous’ central tenet of honesty. It’s better to tell your son the truth about his age instead of lying to him. It’s better to face the jealousies and the fact that everything is not okay in the band instead of trying so hard to project a “cool” face to the public eye. And it’s better to fall in love with the music and its soul–Penny Lane–than to allow other concerns to get in the way and interrupt the authenticity of rock and roll. Once the truth is out in the open, the arduous process of self-overcoming can begin, and with it the tremendous respect bestowed upon the aspiring übermenschen by those who understand their struggle.

As I go forth into the world of music journalism, these are lessons I’ll carry with me. It does me no good to lament the fact that I’m not scoring the Rolling Stone cover story–if I build a reputation for honest work, fair appraisals of music, and a knack for keen observation, I’ll get there eventually.

P.S. How adorable is young Jay Baruchel in this movie?

jay-barcuchel-almost-famous

 

 

 

 

 

P.P.S. Rolling Stone needed the fictional fact checker from the movie for its “A Rape On Campus” story.

 

Is Kanye West The Übermensch?

Is Kanye West the Übermensch?

Have we at last found an example of the higher man?

Have we at last found an example of the higher man?

Get your scuba suits on and prepare to dive headfirst into one of the most polarizing, complex, crazy, egotistical personalities of the past ten years: we’re analyzing Kanye through Friedrich Nietzsche’s eyes today.

For the first decade of Kanye West’s recording career, I couldn’t have cared less about him.  I had never really given him, or rap as a whole, the time of day—it was the music that I’d heard at bar mitzvahs and dances, and in cars where someone cooler than me was controlling the radio.  I had of course seen South Park absolutely destroy him in the classic 2009 episode “Fishsticks,” and my friends had extolled the brilliance of Yeezy’s next two albums (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch the Throne).  It took extended exposure to serious ‘Ye aficionados in the sequestered environ of overnight camp to finally get me interested.  Ironically, it was the anti-commercial Yeezus that hooked me, and “Black Skinhead” that became the song of my summer of 2013.  We got the campers to pound the beat from the song on the lunch tables, because campers are impressionable and think good counselors are the coolest people ever.  My posse and I even rewrote it with clean, camp-themed lyrics to and performed it live at the staff show.  You could have called us disciples or just obsessed.

Then I saw Kanye on the Yeezus Tour that December, and all of a sudden he was transmuted into a champion in my eyes.  There he was, six feet from me on the stage—we got there really early—and for two hours he bombarded me with sheer inspiration.  The show was an artistic masterpiece complete with a dozen anonymous female dancers, a huge ass mountain, and appearances by a monster and Jesus, not to mention Kanye’s various and terrifying masks.  I marveled at his autotuned rant that somehow moved me nearly to tears despite making no sense whatsoever, and I started to realize that no matter how crazy he appeared in his interviews and how many foolish decisions he made in the public eye, this was a true creative genius.  For me, the question shifted from “Why does Kanye act so strangely?” to “Has Kanye transcended humanity?”

Probably the best picture I will ever take.

Probably the best picture I will ever take.

I was just beginning my study of Nietzsche at the time, and as I read about his concept of the übermensch, it was only natural for me to wonder if Kanye West fit the description.  Now, “übermensch” is a term that’s been corrupted to hell by the Nazis—another atrocity we can thank them for—so your conception of it probably doesn’t match Nietzsche’s original intention.  In a nutshell, here’s what the übermensch is:

  • A person who affirms life at every moment. That means all of life’s energy—the good and the bad, but most of all the spontaneous.  Nietzsche calls this spontaneous, ecstatic aspect of life force the Dionysian, and its channeling the will to power.
  • A person who is unfettered by existing systems of morality, values, and organized religion–the übermensch creates their own values every moment. You might think this would allow them to justify killing, stealing, etc., but you’d be wrong, because the übermensch isn’t troubled by the types of concerns that would drive people to kill or steal.
  • A person who escapes the influence of society and of their own past. I’d go into how Nietzsche thinks this is possible, but it’s pretty complex. If you want a more comprehensive explanation of the übermensch, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does a great job of explaining his development of the concept in his seminal mid-1880s work Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

The most important thing to remember is this: the übermensch isn’t about overcoming other people—it’s about overcoming yourself and anything that gets in the way of you expressing your life energy honestly.

So with that in mind, I decided to go back and listen to every Kanye West song, in order, from the very beginning of The College Dropout to the last notes of “All Day.”  I also looked up interview clips ranging from the tame to the bizarre, looking for some sort of indication that I had found the “higher man” of whom Nietzsche speaks.  What I found instead was a walking, rapping, screaming, living contradiction who is variously the epitome and the antithesis of the übermensch.  I’ll parse it all out for you right now.

KANYE’S MUSIC

No matter what you think of Kanye West as a person, his influence on hip hop and culture has been undeniably enormous and positive.  That said, opinions of Kanye the rapper are not as universally acclamatory as those of Kanye the producer.  It’s in the latter of those two fields—production—that I think the strongest Nietzschean traits come out of Yeezy.  He’s never been satisfied with a single sound, and even when he’s found something that resonates with an audience and tops the charts he follows a different creative stream with his next work.  That, to me, is the most amazing thing about his career: as with the Beatles, all of his work has been critically lauded (even if it took some time), but his fans can’t agree on which of his albums is the best.  Some long for a return to the sped-up soul samples that populated The College Dropout and Late Registration, and were thrilled when he returned to that style with “Bound 2” at the end of Yeezus.  Others love the synth-blasting arena rock of Graduation, or the bombast of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or the opulence of Watch the Throne, or the sheer chaos and primalism of Yeezus.  Even 808s, which a lot of listeners disliked in its time and is still his worst-reviewed album, set the tone for the dark, minimalistic, singing-heavy electro-hop that Drake and Kid Cudi would perfect and bring into the mainstream.  I’d expect that in twenty years, people will look back on that album with different, wiser eyes.

yeezy3No matter what style Kanye’s production has had, though, he’s found success and managed to stay ahead of the current tastes in the hip hop world.  Most importantly, he hasn’t just settled into one aesthetic and allowed it to define his career, which is what doomed T-Pain, Nelly, AC/DC, Nickelback, and other acts that remain firmly stuck in the past.  If the übermensch is all about overcoming his own past and living ahistorically, Kanye’s music fits the bill perfectly.  He could have made another “Gold Digger” using more Ray Charles samples and it probably would have been successful, but instead he ditched the style that had brought him to fame, took a creative risk with Graduation and its “stadium status” synths and Steely Dan excerpts, and still landed a number one single with “Stronger”–which, incidentally, rephrases Nietzsche’s famous dictum from Ecce Homo: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”  Every single work has overcome its predecessor and created a vastly different soundscape based largely upon how Kanye was feeling at the time—his music has expressed the sentiments of a heartbroken cyborg, a triumphalist peacock, and a rabid specter at various points in his career, running the gamut of experiences and affirming the occurrence of life in all its glory and sadness.  Nothing is ignored as Kanye moves constantly forward in his music career and creates new musical value out of nothingness—a clear sign of his ascension to the plane of the higher man.

In particular, I find Yeezus to be, in itself, an incredible expression of Dionysian energy.  From the very beginning of “On Sight,” Kanye’s production on this album takes an animalistic tone, the type that reminisces upon the ancient Greek moonlit frenzies and sacrifice-orgies undertaken in the name of their wine god.  There’s dog barks on “I’m In It,” Yoko Ono-esque shrieks on “I Am a God,” and the intense breathing and tribal yells that form crucial parts of “Black Skinhead’s” infectious beat.  But what makes Yeezus a true sonic manifestation of the übermensch is its total unpredictability.  The best moment on the album comes 1:07 into “Blood on the Leaves,” when Kanye’s emotive autotuned singing over a haunting sample of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” is suddenly overtaken by the massive synth-brass TNGHT sample that immediately turns the song from a ghostly ballad into a pained banger.  The transition is unexpected, instant, and so rapidly changes the beat’s value that any notion of what the song was going to mean no longer applies—and that’s the will to power at work.  You can also hear it in the children’s choir that interrupts “On Sight,” the busting-through of Hungarian prog-rock band Omega at the end of “New Slaves,” and Kanye’s surprising return to his soulful production roots on “Bound 2,” the album’s final track.

So if we were to just look at Kanye West’s music, we’d have a pretty convincing argument for his being the higher man.  There’s constant creation of value, freedom from set beliefs and other people’s direct influence, and Kanye’s overcoming of his own past.  Unfortunately, Yeezy’s music is accompanied by…

KANYE’S LYRICS

…and here’s where our comparison starts to run into problems.

While he is far more noteworthy as a producer than a rapper, Kanye has written some important and powerful lyrics over the course of his career.  From the very beginning of The College Dropout, whose first hook states, “We don’t care what people say,” he makes it clear that he will not be confined by any other person’s expectations of him, and in general this theme has dominated his work over the past eleven years.  Even though on his debut this struggle for self-determination is framed most explicitly through his battle to be taken seriously as a non-gangsta rapper—as depicted nicely in “Family Business,” which includes the verse “I woke up early this morning with a new state of mind/A creative way to rhyme without using knives and guns”—Kanye consistently finds new ways to portray his battle against others’ definitions of him.  In itself, this mission is one Nietzsche would praise, particularly as it shifts in focus over time.

For the record, I think that Kanye isn’t taken seriously enough as a political rapper.  His infamous accusation that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” and verses like “I treat cash the way the government treats AIDS/I won’t be satisfied til all my niggas get it” (from “Gorgeous”) might come off as propagation of conspiracy theories, but they’re rooted in ‘Ye’s very real and very accurate perception of the low ceiling forced upon African-Americans in the United States, which he’s alternately discussed from his own perspective and from that of the black community.  The College Dropout’s All Falls Down”—in my opinion, some of the best lyrical work Kanye’s ever done—offers the first classic Yeezian combo take on race and materialism:

We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us

We trying to buy back our 40 acres

And for that paper, look how low we would stoop

Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe.

yeezy2Even now that he’s a critically and commercially acclaimed hip hop superstar, the dual pillars of racism and material wealth remain constant topics of Kanye’s music, two interrelated but vastly different lenses through which we can examine Kanye’s whole career.  While his take on the black plight in America has maintained a steady and very successful course—Kanye’s the rare 21st century rapper, up there with Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z, who can simultaneously top charts and speak to racial issues in songs like “All Falls Down,” “Crack Music,” “Gorgeous,” and “Murder to Excellence”—his take on fame and riches has vacillated enormously on a song-to-song basis, an incongruity that has come to define Kanye as a split consciousness.  He glorifies the “Good Life” even as he decries the “Flashing Lights” that come with it.  He “looks down at his diamond encrusted piece” and the thought that springs to mind is, “No one man should have all that POWER.”  For every Kanye that revels in the glory, sex, and debauchery that comes with life at the top of the cultural hierarchy, there’s a Kanye who is painfully aware of the self-annihilating process it entails.

On no album is the split personality of Kanye more prevalent than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which is rightly termed his masterpiece in production, lyrical themes, and overall catharsis.  Nietzsche, the man who lauded Greek tragedy for its perfect balance of the Apollonian and Dionysian life forces, would have listened to “Runaway” and fainted in ecstasy.  The last four minutes of the song, with their auto-tuned mumbling over the most beautiful strings arrangement composed this side of The Lord of the Rings soundtrack, perfectly embody everything Nietzsche wrote about allowing the will to power to overcome all values and formations, as Kanye’s words literally disintegrate into distortion and the listener is left with pure feeling and a mournful ecstasy.

And yet the very notion of Kanye the living contradiction is what prevents him from truly embodying the übermensch.  Despite his ability to diagnose the American neurosis stemming from our obsession with material wealth, Kanye himself is a slave to money, fame, and nice things.  He also has a penchant for defending his place among the world’s rappers, and even though his willingness to speak without a filter and weather the public’s judgment transcends the current value placed on political correctness, he seems to care a great deal about how he is perceived in the hip hop and fashion arenas.  Most importantly, Kanye is a devout Christian who has never shied away from his belief— “Jesus Walks” made him famous, after all—but also has the temerity to buck his faith’s monotheism and declare, “I am a God.”  We need only look at the second verse of that song to see examples of all three of these contradictions:

I just talked to Jesus

He said, “What up, Yeezus?”

I said, “Shit, I’m chillin’,

Tryna stack these millions

I know he the most high

But I am a close high

Mi casa, su casa

That’s our cosa nostra

I am a god.

Nietzsche, who notably wrote that “God is dead and we have killed him,” fingered Christianity as the prime example of a concrete value system that needs to be overcome.  Not only is Kanye incapable of overcoming his belief in Jesus Christ the Savior, but he also mistakenly believes that he can be a committed Christian who somehow is also a god: that’s heresy, and worse, it’s a personal dishonesty that Nietzsche can’t abide.  Kanye’s also calling himself the closest thing to Jesus in terms of his influence and fame, which is a plea for recognition with which the übermensch should not have to be concerned.  If Yeezy’s telling people to kneel before him, he’s clearly dependent on their adoration for his own self-affirmation, a value he needs to overcome.  And then there’s the ubiquitous reference to making money, a goal upon which Kanye reneges on the very next song off of Yeezus, the brilliant “New Slaves.”  The higher man should not be pursuing anything that would enslave him, particularly not when he openly realizes that it’s a toxin.

IN CONCLUSION

Sometimes I wonder whether Kanye’s outspokenness and utter lack of filter are just a marketing ploy.  Obviously he wouldn’t be nearly the cultural icon that he is if he didn’t match his groundbreaking music with his brash personality, so it’s a fair question.  Personally, though, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.  I don’t think he’s faking in interviews like this.

Even though Kanye is not an übermensch, it’s still worthwhile to consider the value he provides to popular culture, which I think is considerable.  The primary reason people hate on him is that he’s willing to say anything and doesn’t hesitate to express a high opinion of himself.  But is that really a reason to despise someone as vociferously as much of the public despises Kanye?  He’s certainly guilty of some self-aggrandizement, and “tactless” is a mild way of describing his putdowns of George Bush, Taylor Swift, and Beck.  But in recent years, he’s learned to apologize for some of his crazier outbursts, and the statements from which he doesn’t back down are comparisons that I think he can back up—why hasn’t he earned the right to think of himself in the light of Da Vinci or Walt Disney when his music has made such a powerful impact on the hip hop world?  At least within his sphere, he deserves to be called a master, if not the master.  If you’re going to hate on Kanye, hate on him for the content of his lyrics, which arguably perpetuate misogynoir (the oppression of black women).  But aside from that problematic issue, the fact that Kanye is willing to speak his mind is so important to the preservation of free thought in a day and age when speaking off the cuff risks instant demonization by an online mob.

Kanye West might not live up to Nietzsche’s ideal for the higher man, but he is a “close high,” and for that he’s earned my respect.  Now let’s hope his next album—expected later this year—continues to transcend the values of rap music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peace in the Middle East Hinges On Assuaging the Ancient Jewish Distrust

*Note: I was going to write about Kanye for today’s post, but I felt as though this was more important to say.  As for Nietzsche’s thoughts on the matter, he’d just be upset that the Israelis, Palestinians, Iranians, Americans, and everyone else haven’t overcome their attachment to the values underlying the conflict.

As a rule, I tend to stay away from writing about issues concerning Israel.  The tiny country is controversial enough as it is, and the fact that siding with or against Israel has become an increasingly polarized issue in the United States puts a limit on how much meaningful debate can happen about American-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian relations.  Furthermore, as a Jew I fear that my own biases will subconsciously creep into anything I have to say.  (I’ll make every effort to approach this article objectively.)

But with Israel once again in the news (surprise), this time concerning the Iran nuclear deal, I think there’s never been a more appropriate time to truly dig into why Israel acts the way it does on the international stage.  If the goal of diplomacy and global relations is to make the planet a peaceful and prosperous place—surely that should be the goal—it is vital to understand the collective values, beliefs, and psyche that power a nation and motivate its leaders.   Israel operates under a microscope whose powerful magnification has exposed every single flaw in the way it treats the people who live within and outside of its borders, but that microscope rarely seeks to understand, for better or for worse, the psycho-historical bases of these behaviors.  To treat the problems, these bases must first be uncovered.

The first and most important idea to understand is the state of Israel is irrevocably linked to the Jewish people.  Many Jews will be quick to point out that the two are not equivalent, and in fact total equivocation of Israel and Jews creates many problems given that one is a state and the other is an ethnic group, but that some degree of inseparability exists is undeniable.  Israel’s inaugural and current governmental system was founded by a bunch of early 20th century European Jewish immigrants to the land that was then and still called Palestine, people who were motivated by anti-Semitism in France and pogroms in Russia to seek a place where they could build a safe haven and become a self-determining nation.  Nationalism was all the rage across the Western world at the time, a cause that sparked World War I and a core principle of the Fourteen Points Woodrow Wilson proposed at the end of that conflict, and the particular nationalist movement involving Jews was dubbed Zionism.

While other nation-states formed from the breakup of Austria-Hungary, it took the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis to build up the international momentum for Britain to cede control of Israel to the Jewish settlers there.  Of course, in the process, many of the local Arabs were unceremoniously booted off their land, and ever since then the “right of return” has been an insurmountable obstacle in the path to peace between Jewish Israelis and Arab Palestinians.  Part of the reason why is that Israel remains committed to its Jewish identity.  The very words of the country’s national anthem proclaim this:

Hatikvah (The Hope) (English translation)

As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,

With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,

Then our hope—the two-thousand-year-old hope—will not be lost:

To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

So despite all attempts to solve the Arab-Iranian-Israeli conflict with an areligious focus squarely on the present—which would by all means be the easiest, most practical, and best way to approach the problem—this is an issue that goes back as far as the history of the Jewish people.  And the history of the Jewish people is one built largely on a distrust of outside forces, a distrust that may seem anachronistic today but came about for countless understandable reasons.

The Jewish claim to Israel is rooted in God’s covenant with Abraham, but Jewish distrust is rooted in the ancient Hebrews’ experience in Egypt.  For generations following Joseph’s successful interpretations of one of Pharaoh’s dreams, the twelve sons of Jacob had lived in Egypt and become successful.  But in time, a new pharaoh came into power, one who did not remember Joseph and his good standing.  The Torah recounts the events that followed:

“He said to his people, “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are.  Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and a war befall us, and they join our enemies and depart from the land.”  So they appointed over them tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens, and they built store cities for Pharaoh, namely Pithom and Raamses.  but as much as they would afflict them, so did they multiply and so did they gain strength, and they were disgusted because of the children of Israel.  So the Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with back breaking labor.” (Exodus 1:9-13)

There exist a few key elements to this story:

The first is that, for the first time in the Bible, the Israelites are singled out as “outsiders.”  Judaism, unlike most other major world religions, is an ethnic religion, meaning that its followers originated from a common ancestor and more members of the faith arise almost exclusively by reproduction, with no emphasis placed on missionary work.  Thus Jews are united by a feeling of familial connection which not only tightens the bonds between members of the group as compared to other religious factions, but also makes the group more identifiable and more likely to be singled out.

The second is that the Pharaoh assumes the Israelites pose a danger to his kingdom.  Perhaps he is merely suffering the effects of ingroup-outgroup bias, but the behavior is one that the Jews have seen repeated over and over throughout history: Jews exist in our community, and they will do bad things to us (like poison our water supply, use our children’s blood to make matzah, manipulate the financial markets, etc.).

The third, and most important, is that the Israelites, in a land where they once were welcomed, prosperous, and noted for their success, were systematically betrayed and discriminated against by the country they called home.  Once, Joseph had been hailed as a savior in Egypt; now, his descendants were a threat that had to be eliminated.

With the exception of times when Israel existed as a sovereign land and arguably in the United States Post-Cold War, the story of the Israelites and the Jews they would become is one of maltreatment in countries they did not rule.  This abuse has ranged from the cultural elimination attempted by the Seleucids, the destruction of the Second Temple, and the mass murder of European Jews during the Crusades to the expulsion from Spain, the pogroms of Eastern Europe and, of course, the Holocaust.  Because that last atrocity occurred with the world watching and with the forces of Zionism having built up for decades previously, it served as the impetus to the creation of modern Israel.  Other than that, you’d be hard-pressed to find any sort of reparations paid to the Jewish people for millennia of attempts to destroy them.

The Jews, obviously, are far from the only historical group to suffer persecution.  And it’s not as if a Jewish state, when it has existed, hasn’t itself been guilty of being the perpetrator.  But the Jewish people’s response to persecution is unique, deep-rooted, and proves crucial to any understanding of modern Israel’s behavior.

The earlier passage from Exodus mentions the way the Israelites responded to Pharaoh’s initial strategy of heavy taxation and assignment to the worst jobs: “…but as much as they would afflict them, so did they multiply and so did they gain strength.”  Rather than complaining to the Pharaoh and demanding equal treatment, the Israelites put their heads down and placed trust only in their own abilities to thrive under increasingly difficult circumstances.  And because of the further success that came of their efforts, the Israelites found themselves enslaved.

While the Jews’ disproportionate flourishing (when they’ve been given the opportunity) can be attributed to a higher average intelligence, per one British study, the coexistent impulsion to hard work and self-reliance in the face of challenges can be attributed to this legacy of oppression.  Over the intervening three thousand years, outside help for the Jews and Israel has come sparingly—most notably from America, where the ugly, all-consuming specter of African slavery and racism prevented Jews from ever becoming the primary targets of persecution.  The world’s biggest act of aid to the Jewish people, the creation of Israel in 1948, may never have happened if the Holocaust had been mitigated by America and other European nations increasing their maximum allowed number of Jewish immigrants in the 1930s.  By and large, the Jewish people have never been given a reason to trust anyone but themselves.

This leads us to the problems that plague Israel today.  The nation has been singled out, for better or worse, for its unfair treatment of the Palestinians (whether or not this singling out is justified is one of those issues that has been polarized to the point where meaningful debate isn’t currently possible).  Its leader has retained power by cultivating the religious right at the expense of international approval.  Some doomsday prophets both inside and outside the country foresee it descending to the status of pariah state, joining the likes of the clinically-insane North Korean dictatorship and Apartheid-era South Africa in the history books’ most ignominious list.  And now Israeli leadership is doing everything it can to drum up opposition to a nuclear deal that, though it will receive wide accolades at the UN and among American liberals, arguably poses an existential threat to the nation.  Whether it actually does has been hotly debated, but that truth is irrelevant when the real issue—and a vital component of all Israel-related issues—is one of perception.

The Israeli Right, which controls the government and thus bears at least some responsibility for the Palestinian plight, holds more closely to the historically justified Jewish distrust than does the Israeli Left—and, for that matter, most non-Jews.  In the same way that white people can never truly understand the black American experience, non-Jews who condemn Israeli policy can’t fully appreciate the three millennia of persecution that underlie the psyche of Netanyahu and other like-minded Israelis.  These are people in whom the memory of the Holocaust runs as freshly as if it happened last week, who remain committed to the original purpose of Israel as founded in 1948: to provide the Jewish people with a safe place.

In such a context, comparisons of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to South African Apartheid make little sense.  Regardless of how the extent of the oppression measures up and regardless of the current powerful position of Israeli Jews, the Apartheid was undertaken by a historically privileged group while the Israeli abuse of Palestinians is undertaken by a historically oppressed group that fears, above all else, a return to that maltreatment.  Israel is the boy on the playground who kicks the injured boy on the ground because he suspects the fallen boy is only faking injury and will destroy him if given the chance to stand up.  South African Apartheid was more like the Pharaoh who did not remember Joseph, fearing a majority population’s power and seeking to keep it in check by any means necessary.  Both are clearly morally wrong, but the difference in motive behind the actions requires different approaches to each instance of oppression.

In such a context, Israel’s distrust of Iran makes total sense.  After all, this is the most outspoken enemy of Israel (which, as I stated earlier, cannot be separated from the Jewish people) since Hitler, a country that has declared that among its goals is the total annihilation of the state.  Again, regardless of what the deal will actually produce ten or twenty years down the line, this narrative of rising enemies and increasing feeling of isolation has to sound awfully familiar to the Israelis who are convinced that the sky is falling.

In such a context, the solution to every issue involving Israel and its neighbors is obvious: instead of leaping to criticize Israel at every turn, accusing it of war crimes, and demanding that it either cooperate with the international community or face boycotts, any nation hoping to help the Middle East become peaceful must first consider and break down the very real Jewish distrust that lies at Israel’s heart (and the Arab/Iranian distrust of Israel, too).  If Israel could somehow be convinced that a totally liberated Palestinian-controlled Gaza and West Bank wouldn’t immediately take the offensive, if the world could somehow assuage Israel’s fear that the first Iranian nuclear bomb will be immediately fired at Tel Aviv, the Jewish state would instantly become far more agreeable on the international stage.  The left side of its political spectrum is already more inclined to start this process, particularly regarding the Palestinians.  Of course, such a trust-building exercise is a two-way street that would require the dropping of ancient prejudices on both sides.

The problem is that old beliefs die hard.  And for a state like Israel, the proclaimed home of a people who has been persecuted almost ceaselessly since Pharaoh enslaved them in Egypt three thousand years ago, trust is going to be very, very hard to come by—especially now that it has seen its greatest supporter sit down at the negotiating table with its arch nemesis.

Assuaging the issue of Jewish mistrust is a necessary first step in the direction of Middle Eastern peace that has not yet happened.  I’m not sure how such an alleviation of concern could even be accomplished, but it’s a strategy that must be attempted because turning up the international pressure on Israel isn’t working.  It has only activated the oldest Israeli fear, and continuing to make the Jewish state feel isolated will prove counterproductive to the peace process going forward.

The Dionysian Karaoke Song Power Rankings!

Never, ever do karaoke in a bar with three people.

Never, ever do karaoke in a bar with three people.

Song of the day: “Karaoke” by Smallpools

Chasing the Dionysian involves partaking in spontaneous song and dance when the moment calls for it.  And there’s no better example of spontaneous, ecstatic, drunken song and dance than KARAOKE.  The word means “empty orchestra” in Japanese, which is basically an invitation to create values and affirm the life that fills the music!

Singing karaoke at a bar is a great opportunity to meet people, bond with friends, and impress that attractive person you’ve had your eye on for the past hour (or even kill zombies).  It’s also a great opportunity to make a total fool out of yourself in front of dozens or hundreds of strangers and leave the bar in disgrace.  That’s why it’s important to choose a proper song for your performance.  The song you pick plays a major role in determining whether you bring down the house in raucous cheers or the horrible combination of pity and jeering laughter.  Luckily, I’m here to help you select correctly.  Memorize this list so well that you won’t forget it even when you’re several drinks into the night.

First, I present the six criteria we’ll be using to rank my top ten guaranteed karaoke successes.  Each of these is on a scale from 1 to 5, and they’ll be averaged to get the song’s overall rating.

– Icon status (IS): How famous is the song?  I don’t care how much you love that Modest Mouse deep cut or Slayer’s best death metal, the crowd can’t get into that.  Sing those obscure tunes on your own in the shower.

– Period piece (PP): How well does the song capture the essence of a specific period or genre of music?  This is tied to Icon Status, but provides more nuance to your selection.  For example, if you’re going for late ’90s boy band, don’t you dare pick 98 Degrees (or any song that isn’t on No Strings Attached or Millennium).

– Mood setter (MS): What kind of effect will the song have on the energy of the bar?  A higher rating here means more upbeat, because if you’re doing karaoke the bar is probably not a chill place.  There’s also a length factor here–you don’t want to overstay your welcome.  “American Pie” is a classic, but it’s too slow and waaaaay too long to even be considered.

– Instrumental breakdowns (IB): Because you don’t have an instrument, you run the risk of looking pretty stupid during guitar solos or extended intros/outros, so pick songs without long breaks.  For example, unless you have the world’s best air guitar skills, don’t pick “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”

– Difficulty (D): You should know how good you are at singing.  Now subtract about a quarter of that ability because you’re drunk.  If you still know you can nail the high notes on “Beat It” or do a perfect Sam Smith impression on “Latch,” go for it.  Otherwise, stay away from songs that will put you on the struggle bus.  For the sake of the rankings, 1 is the hardest and 5 is the easiest.

– Crowd participation (CP): Some songs have really easy lyrics for the crowd to sing without looking at the screen.  If they’re singing, your mistakes will be covered up and everyone will be having a great time.

And now, for the rankings!

 

 

 

10. “All The Single Ladies” – Beyoncé

IS: 4 PP: 4 MS: 3 IB: 4 D: 3 CP: 3 Average: 3.5

It doesn’t matter how high Taylor Swift’s star rises…she will never dethrone Beyoncé, who has been sitting at the top of the female pop singer world for the past decade and a half and remains as flawless as ever.  “All The Single Ladies” is her best entry for this list, with its infectious finger-wagging dance and catchy chorus.  The perfect selection if you’re a group of girls.

9. “I Want It That Way” – Backstreet Boys

IS: 4 PP: 5 MS: 2 IB: 5 D: 4 CP: 3 Average: 3.83

Ah, to be in elementary school again and swept up in Boy Band mania!  As is the case for many songs on this list, nostalgia plays a huge part in the appeal of “I Want It That Way,” and so do the computerized harmonies the karaoke machine will produce for you.  If you were more of an *NSYNC person, you can sub “Bye Bye Bye” in here and get nearly identical results.

8. “Hollaback Girl” – Gwen Stefani

IS: 3 PP: 4 MS: 4 IB: 4 D: 4 CP: 5 Average: 4.0

Everyone likes a little attitude on the karaoke stage, and “Hollaback Girl” packs a huge punch.  It’s never been so fun to spell the name of a fruit after comparing it to human feces.

7. “Hot In Herre” – Nelly

IS: 3 PP: 5 MS: 5 IB: 5 D: 3 CP: 4 Average: 4.17

A song that doesn’t get a lot of attention, as most of us would like to forget that Nelly was ever a thing.  But there’s no denying that the sentiment of this song perfectly matches the atmosphere of most karaoke bars: it’s all about dancing and getting a little hot and crazy.  Bonus points if you actually take off some clothes while singing.

T-5. “Twist and Shout” – The Beatles

IS: 5 PP: 5 MS: 5 IB: 3 D: 3 CP: 5 Average: 4.33

I’m not sure why this one slips through the cracks so often, especially considering its dual icon status of being a Beatles song and having had Ferris Bueller sing it on a parade float.  But the call-and-response is sure to engage the crowd, and you don’t have to care about your vocal quality because John Lennon basically screams the lyrics anyways.  Plus the build up after the guitar solo is second only to “Shout” in getting people to start low to the ground and slowly stand up.

T-5. “It Wasn’t Me” – Shaggy

IS: 4 PP: 5 MS: 4 IB: 5 D: 3 CP: 5 Average: 4.33

Let’s be honest: no one knows what Shaggy is singing in the verses, and no one cares.  So it’s basically an invitation for your drunk ass to blabber gibberish in a faux-Jamaican accent and gain a crowd’s adoration for it.  Once you’re through that and have everyone’s attention, you get to the part where you command them to fill in the titular line.  Also, this song is just hilarious.  The next time I sing karaoke, this will be the song I pick.

T-3. “Sweet Caroline” – Neil Diamond

IS: 5 PP: 4 MS: 4 IB: 4 D: 5 CP: 5 Average: 4.5

The verses of this song don’t matter at all.  It attains this high ranking because it’s impossible not to reply to “Sweet Caroline” with “BOP-BOP-BOP.”  After several drinks, the call-and-response only becomes more exuberant.

T-3. “Livin’ On A Prayer” – Bon Jovi

IS: 5 PP: 5 MS: 4 IB: 4 D: 4 CP: 5 Average: 4.5

We’re getting into the ’80s classics now, the ones you hear at every karaoke night because they’re just so damn fun to sing.  Bon Jovi created one of the most anthemic choruses of the decade in “Livin’ On A Prayer,” and the passion imbued in the lyrics is sure to elicit a heartfelt performance and a matching reaction from the crowd.

 

 

 

 

2. “Don’t Stop Believin'” – Journey

IS: 5 PP: 5 MS: 5 IB: 5 D: 4 CP: 5 Average: 4.67

You probably expected to see this one up here, and you were right to do that, because it’s a fucking great song to sing.  The build from the power ballad first verse to the “on and on and on and on” turns up the energy in the bar, and no one can resist trying to hit Steve Perry’s high notes.  A guitar solo would normally be a markdown for these rankings, but in this case air-playing it is a fundamental part of the experience.

You could easily make an argument for “Don’t Stop Believin'” to be first on this list.  It’s an absolute classic that never fails to involve the crowd and will leave you feeling like a total rock star.  But I’d like to propose a dark horse candidate for the top spot…

 

 

 

 

1. “Hey Ya” – Outkast

IS: 5 PP: 5 MS: 5 IB: 5 D: 5 CP: 5 Average: 5

Maybe it’s because “Hey Ya” was released in the 2000s and that era of music hasn’t aged all too well.  Maybe it’s because of the unconventional beat.  But for some reason “Hey Ya” is criminally underrated as a karaoke song despite the fact that pretty much all critics agree that it’s one of the best songs of the millennium.  It’s easy to dance to and still contains such endearing quirks as the opening count-off, the hand claps, and the directions to the crowd at the end.  Absolutely everyone in the bar will be shaking it like a Polaroid picture by the time you’re done with them.  It’s also very easy to sing, with a repetitive melody, a two-word chorus, and that part where you just get to yell the words for the last two minutes.  If you have even an nanogram of stage charisma, you will own the night by the time you’re done with this.

These rankings are just one man’s opinion, and Nietzsche wouldn’t be happy if you allowed me to define your personal karaoke song rankings.  So feel free to tear me apart in the comments.

The Philosophy of Phacebook Phriends

Modern technology (plus time travel) would have made some amazing debates possible.

Modern technology (plus time travel) would have made some amazing debates possible.

Song of the day: “Friends” by Led Zeppelin

Think about how many friends you interacted with today.  Out of those friends, how many did you actually interact with–like, in person, face to face?

That was probably about ten percent for me yesterday.  When you add up all the texts, Facebook messages, emails, phone calls, Snapchats, FaceTime and Skype sessions, etc., I must have communicated with about thirty friends.  Do you know how many whose actual, physical bodies I saw with my own two eyes?  Two.  Three, if you count family too (I had lunch with my grandma).

More and more, our friends live not down the street, but in our smartphones and on the Internet.  We can access them with the push of a button, send them pictures of our world instantaneously, and take our minds out of the here-and-now to chill in cyberspace whenever we’d like.  With applications like GroupMe and Google Hangouts, we can even talk to several friends at once.  Back when letters were the most effective means of long-distance communication and cross-country phone calls cost a fortune, it was much more difficult to stay close to the friends that had moved away.  Now, all it takes is the effort required to type a few words and press “enter.”

Most people embrace this new reality.  Do a Google search on long-distance friendship and you’ll find a slew of Buzzfeed posts and other sentimental blog entries singing the praises of having buddies who live across the country or the world.  But despite my own amazing relationships with friends from California and England and Florida and myriad other places, I find myself wondering whether the very nature of friendship has changed because of cell phones and the Internet.  Do we need to define it differently than we have in the past?  And is modern-day long-distance friendship quantifiably better or worse than the old-fashioned kind?

Psychology tells us that long-distance friendship alone is not enough to survive.  From birth, humans are dependent upon physical contact with other people to assure normal mental development–notably shown in Harry Harlow’s experiments that showed rhesus monkeys preferring cloth-coated “mothers” over ones made of wire frame and developing insufficient emotional intelligence when exposed to only the latter.  Humans benefit emotionally from touching and being touched by others in warm and friendly ways because such contact releases oxytocin, which decreases levels of cortisol and corresponding levels of stress.  And British psychologist Robin Dunbar suggests that because online, long-distance friends can’t share experiences or physical contact with us, our real-life social skills and the number of meaningful social interactions we have with others will actually decrease as social media’s rise continues.

Among the great philosophers, though, there are disagreements with this point stemming from each one’s definition of friendship.  Aristotle, who laid out one of the earliest and most influential discussions of friendship, wrote that the sharing of virtuous ethical activity is most crucial for developing true friends–a distinction marked by desiring good to come of the other for the other’s sake and being able to see their virtue as clearly as you can see your own.  Merely deriving utility or pleasure from someone does not make them your friend.  While his discussion has its flaws (you can check them out in detail here), when we ask whether long-distance friendship can fall in Aristotle’s highest classification of friendship, we can find support for both sides of the argument.

On the one hand, desiring a friend’s good for that friend’s sake is something that you can do over the Internet, and I’d argue that sharing values and virtues with our closest friends is a given and, again, does not require a physical presence.  But on the other hand, Aristotle says that friends must spend a great deal of time with each other in the pursuit of virtuous acts.  Does mere conversation and thought count?  According to Aristotle’s conception of the good (read: virtuous) life, it may or may not.  He names two different types of good lives: the life of politics and the life of contemplation.  The former seems to require physical interaction, particularly in the context of the small city-states that made up Aristotle’s Greece, where engagement in the government and society would have been of paramount importance.  To be fair, with the birth of social media activism, long-distance friends may be able to engage in the same kind of political activity, if only on a national scale.  But I would argue that social media activism falls more accurately into the category of a contemplative life, and that true political virtue still require the type of direct engagement that isn’t possible for friends to undertake when they are separated.

Friends who achieve virtue through contemplation, though, don’t need to be physically close to share a meaningful friendship because the Internet and telecommunications have enabled thought and discussion to be shared instantaneously and effortlessly.  On this ground, I think Aristotle is joined by other philosophers, especially those of the Enlightenment and later who maintained vigorous penpals (Voltaire being among the most famously active in his letter writing).  Also meeting Aristotle here is Nietzsche, whose anti-philosophy and subsequent characterization of friendship actually ends up dovetailing perfectly with the idea of long-distance buddies.

As I’ve discussed previously, Nietzsche’s entire system is predicated on overcoming yourself and all of the formations foisted upon you by society, history, and other people.  At first glance, friendship appears to be the type of permanent value that Nietzsche would consider a limit on the will to power–particularly Aristotle’s conception of wanting the other’s good for the other’s sake.  In a life dedicated to constant creation and destruction of values and the ability to spontaneously affirm life, wouldn’t attachment to another person get in the way?

This has always been the major thorn Nietzsche puts in my side.  Having studied both philosophy and psychology, I admire Nietzsche’s commitment to self-overcoming but can’t ignore psychological findings about the emotional importance of a steady self-concept and reliance upon friends.  I haven’t given up on trying to marry the two seemingly conflicting ways of thought, though, and I think I have an answer: real friendship is possible for Nietzsche between people who share the goal of expressing the will to power, but it’s a friendship based on challenging the other to reach new heights of self-overcoming.  These friends are not dependent upon each other per se, but viewing each other’s aspiration to the übermensch gives them mutual respect and the encouragement and competitive drive that fuel ambition.  We might call this type of relationship a friendly rivalry, the sort of friendship that John Lennon and Paul McCartney shared, in which the two were incredibly close emotionally but also pushed each other to new heights of creativity.

Does this Nietzschean type of friendship require a physical presence in the other’s life?  I don’t think so.  While the close proximity of hanging out together might provide a stronger sense of challenge to self-overcome, it also involves a greater risk of attaching permanent value to the friendship (again, a thought we take for granted but we’re in Nietzsche’s world right now).  In that case, a long-distance friendship might actually prove to be more effective, since the ideas and stories of expressing the will to power can still be shared but the separation of the friends reduces their mutual dependency.  The value thus accorded to the technology that makes long-distance friendship possible, meanwhile, becomes the new center of debate.

In sum, I think it’s obvious that a long-distance friendship will be stronger if it’s based in some original physical interaction, but that doesn’t mean a cyber relationship can’t be meaningful.  As long as we ensure that we don’t get totally caught up in the interwebs and lose sight of the real world and the moment we inhabit, there’s actually a lot of benefit to having a friend who can view your problems from a thousand miles away, see the big picture, and offer objective advice.  And when it comes to sharing thought, long-distance works just fine.  In fact, I think some of the less socially skilled philosophers *cough KANT cough* would have been absolute Facebook fiends–they’d probably be those people who get really annoying and share about fifty articles a day on their timeline.

So feel free to strike up an online conversation with me if you enjoyed reading this.  Maybe if things work out, we’ll actually meet up face-to-face and be friends like people were in the old days.