Saturday, February 23, 2013

If You Can Give It I Can Take It: Self-Determination

As you may have heard, I'm a W-O-M-A-N.

Enough of a woman to be very concerned with the current state of womanhood, and enough of a feminist to have majored in Women's Studies in college. (Although enough of a skeptic to be so woozy about the current state of feminism that I neglect to mention what my college major actually WAS in that biographical information in the sidebar to your right.)

And my thoughts about the current state of womanhood? They come down to. . .

. . .ugggggggggggghhhhhhh.


One of my favorite activities recently has been to sit down and watch The Bachelor with one of my lady friends (who are all [you will be completely unsurprised to learn] smart, weird, and beautiful).

And, man.

I watch that show because one of my favorite genres of things is those that address the question, "How Do _______ People Fall In Love". (Fill in the blank with various things and it's the basis of a good deal of culture!)

In The Bachelor's case it's "How Do Super Mainstream Normal White People Fall In Love". I mean that show has the white-breadiest vision of romance you EVER saw. There ain't hardly a shot wherein you cannot find at LEAST one candelabra and at LEAST one red rose.

And so it's fricking enjoyable! I read somewhere very recently that reality TV is the art of putting people in manufactured situations and documenting their authentic emotions. The Bachelor does that very well.

Part of what makes it fascinating is that the women in the show are so aggressively normal: Catherine, 26, Graphic Designer, Seattle WA; Lyndsey, 24, Substitute Teacher, Fort Leonard MO; these words will pop up under her face at least three times per episode. They are supposed to be like women you know, which is why it's so weirdly compellingly schadenfreude-y to watch them do insane and cheesy things like just happen across an interesting ethnic festival as they browse a flea market in the beautiful capital of this obscure tropical destination*.

*This message brought to you by The Tourism Ministry Of This Obscure Tropical Destination. I told you this shit was white bread.

But what's particularly compelling about THIS season of The Bachelor is that the beast has finally become self-aware.

So these totally normal women (Lesley M, 25, Political Consultant, Washington DC; Desiree, 26, Bridal Stylist, Los Angeles CA) are still saying things that make you roll your eyes, but they are saying them like this:

"I would always be sitting at home watching and I'd be thinking, 'how could you let this happen to you??' but now I am here and I don't understand why but this is happening to me! I am in love with Seeeeeeeeeeeeeean and I can't wait for our one-on-one date swimming with the dolphins and drinking enormous glasses of white wine!"

And you know what? I find that charming and relatable. I'm not going to get caught up in thoughts like "well I would NEVER go on The Bachelor so I can't believe SHE did and SHE DESERVES ALL THE HEARTBREAK SHE'S GOING TO GET!". (Which I have to admit is I think in some ways the underpinning of The Bachelor. One of the underpinnings anyway. An underpinning I prefer to avoid because it seems pretty jagged and rusty, metaphorically speaking.

But their hearts almost always will get broken. That's just the odds of the show.)

I think my ability to empathize with the contestants on The Bachelor simply comes from my ability to empathize with other women. A quality I am extraordinarily grateful to have because of how much it truly makes my life better, but that I also think is not exactly nurtured among women right now.

(And yes, I do think that at the end of day it's important to boil it down further to "empathize with other people" and "not exactly nurtured among women or men right now", but it's not quite the end of the day and I am talking about only women.)


I could get into all the ways that I think a) it's important to acknowledge that media has a huge impact on our collective psychology, b) that media is also a barometer for our collective psychology, and c) that depictions of women in the media of our day are extremely fucked up.

And not just unilaterally fucked up but also mixed up. Like "Oh isn't Mad Men such an interesting show about the terrible lives of women in the 1960s, glad we got all that figured out! Coming up next: Curvaceous Mad Men star Christina Hendricks shows off her new engagement ring on the red carpet!"

Or "Sheeeeeee's wearing a bow in her hair! Sheeeeeeeeee's got kittens printed on her knee socks! Sheeeeeeeee's talking about how she can't make macaroni and cheese without burning down her house! It's The New Girl You're Supposed to Look Up to!"

It's a pretty clear illustration of how it's very difficult to feed any human concept into the media machine without it coming out the other side as a grotesque cariacature of itself. (This is where I also note that I have no issue with the show Mad Men myself and am an avid fan. It's the media coverage of Mad Men that gets me down.)"Women have gained several tangible important civil rights since the 1960s" becomes "Women had terrible lives 60 years ago without exception and now without exception everything is all better". "It's okay for a woman to be imperfect and not 100% in control of her life!" becomes "The more quirkily incompetent you are at everything, the more attractive you are!".

It's frustrating that these are the end concepts I see around me, but also encouraging because I do feel that those original thoughts have a lot to them. So we are still getting weird views about women, but at least they reflect something sympathetic to the general cause.

And what's the general cause, for women? I'd put it like this:
- Women helping other women in a real and kind way.
- The acknowledgment that we didn't solve all of the world's problems between the years 1960 and 1980.
- Encouragement for women to define themselves by themselves and not by either other people (husband, children) or by arbitrary milestone concepts (marriage, babies)

This is much too big a topic to address in a single blog post, and I have to get going to my second viewing of The Bachelor: Sean Tells All, but I'd like to also connect it to music because that is also something that my blog is about.

And so I thought I'd tell you the song I am listening to right now this very minute as I write this post, which is sung by a woman who has been defining herself by herself since she descended to this planet in a shower of purple glitter (I have to assume she was not born in the traditional way):


It always comes back to Cher.


The song: Cher, "Just Like Jesse James"; 1989


Sunday, February 17, 2013

But Ooh Baby I'm A Fool For You: Not Guilty

One of the greatest things about the time I spend at WCBN is how often I get to read liner notes.

I think these are generally an underappreciated art form.

Back in the summer I read the liner notes to Paul Simon's latest album, which were written by Elvis Costello, and I've not forgotten this line:

"The trick is, as I know it, is to care like hell and not give a damn at the same time or as more elegantly proposed here; So Beautiful or So What."

Since that time I have occasionally thought of that line, so beautiful or so what, and it's helped me keep my head up -- which I think is one of the most important functions of art.

To me it means that the things you should think about most in life are the things that awe you.


In any case as you might suspect I have no problem with the "care like hell" part of the formula Elvis Costello suggests, but the "not give a damn" part eludes me occasionally.

(Here are some songs I've previously suggested for this purpose.)

When I REALLY need to pump up my ability to not give a damn, which is a situation that I found myself in earlier this evening, I turn to my Pandora station based on this song.

The song: Muse, "Supermassive Black Hole"; 2006

(This post is also about guilty pleasures, which I don't believe exist, so I should also say that publicly admitting to liking Pandora radio seems to be a bit of a faux pas in Radio Person circles. However, I do like Pandora radio.

Also, admitting to liking this song was probably a little embarrassing even before it was prominently featured in the first Twilight movie but hey, a good song is a good song.

And the particular combination of Pandora radio and this song is simply a masterpiece of super-lush, over-dramatic, mid-2000s rock. The kind of station my roommates used to have to ask me to turn down late at night.)

I think part of why I like this song so much and why it is so good for me when I am in dark moods is its reference to astronomy. I like to be made to think about black holes because thinking about stuff like that helps me get out of my own problems because for everything that they are, they are certainly not cosmic.

There's another phrase I've used here before that's something I have to remind myself to do when I feel sad. It comes from something my friend Anna said when I was trying to fumblingly explain to her why I got Orion tattooed on my arm.  I said, approximately,

"Well when I walk home at night in the winter and it's cold, it's really easy to just stare at the ground the whole time and not realize it because the cold makes me all hunched up and grumpy and upset. But when I do manage to look up I almost always see Orion and it makes me feel better because it makes me think like 'wow, the stars!' instead of 'blehhhhhrgh, my proooooblems'."

"Oh okay," she said. "So it's a reminder to turn outwards."

Something like that.


Love Is A Losing Game: Entirety

I briefly mentioned this once but not in very much depth: I don't think of myself as an "albums" person.

I just respond to the song for the song. And think of songs for themselves.

It's a way of thinking that differentiates pop people from rock people. My friends tell me I should lay off on my insane habit of trying to fit everything into categories that somehow support my ongoing unified theory of everything, like this whole thing I have going about "Wheat Thins people" vs. "Triscuits people", but you can tear "rock people" vs. "pop people" from my dead hands.

Rock people consider albums, pop people consider songs. Rock people consider artists, pop people consider personalities. Rock people value obscurity (in lyrics and in music and in life and in everything) and pop people value universality. And clarity.

If you are sensing a bitterness here toward rock people, you're not wrong. But it's just a bitterness born out of a frustrated desire to connect. I understand that we are all residents of the same bizarre and lonely country.


But personalities are mutable, which is generally a good thing. And so I've been listening recently to albums.

Some of my current favorites are Tusk by Fleetwood Mac, There Goes Rhymin' Simon by Paul Simon, and Tattoo You by the Rolling Stones. And I sense myself getting ready to fall into a Dusty in Memphis phase, hard.

The thing is -- and here's where I am going to get REAL vulnerable on you for a second -- listening to albums is a solitary pursuit, but of the sort that is really best shared with one other person. Like snow-shoeing, or watching Antiques Roadshow. And I do not have that one other person in my life, in that sense, so listening to albums sometimes makes me feel unbearably lonely.

I'm okay with that feeling in general. Loneliness is its own thing, a hobby that is painful but productive, and though it's hard to admit to feeling it's good when you do.

(There's this impulse when you are lonely to feel reluctant to admit it out of a desire to not seem like there is Something Wrong With You. Well, I feel like I've pretty much come to terms with the fact that there are lots of things Wrong With Me. There's lots of things wrong with you too. Let's all just admit that and acknowledge that it's not the end of the world because, it gets exhausting.)

So, yes. I am beginning to understand the albums thing. It's fun to come back to something again and again and to find it unchanged except for in the ways you have yourself changed. It's fun to grow the patience to give an album time to develop itself over a few songs. It's fun to try to think about the making of the album and how you can hear that in the music.

Fortunately for me there is one album in my rotation right now that soothes more than it inflames my sense of loneliness and general self-pity about the realities of trying to make connections with others as a super-damaged and painfully-introverted person who is 25 years old.

Can you guess? Remember that what soothes feelings like that is the knowledge that someone else has felt them.

You got it: It's Back to Black.


What gets me about this album is that it's just so confident. When I listen to it I try to remember that when she made it Amy Winehouse was unknown. A super-driven person with an unusual artistic vision and the good sense to partner with good musicians like Mark Ronson (who produced it) and the Dap-Tones (who are the back-up band to Sharon Jones and are, seriously, amazing. I've seen Sharon Jones perform with them a few times and they really fulfill the desire to see handsome black men in shiny teal suits do synchronized dance moves that lies deep within my Motown-loving heart.)

But an unknown person. And when I think about it I feel that there's no wonder that she could never follow this album, because part of what makes it so charming is her lack of self-consciousness and when she got famous she developed self-consciousness. Tragically so.

The first time I loved this album she was alive, and now I've come back to it and she's dead. It changes the way I listen to it. Also the first time I loved this album I was 19 and going through a painful, yet normally so, breakup and now I am 25 and just sort of living in an actually mostly un-dramatic way. So that must affect it too.

But one thing I noticed both then and now is how this song is, quietly, the centerpiece of the whole thing.

Listen to it on its own and it's a song about disappointed love. There are many. This is a good one.

Listen to it on the album and you'll have already experienced the bravado of "Rehab" and "You Know I'm No Good", the sly "Me and Mr Jones", the alarmingly candid "Just Friends", and the title track "Back to Black" which like all title tracks is sort of trying to sum the whole thing up for you.

In other words you'll already be in love with Amy Winehouse and the particular blend of her personality and her skill.

And then it's "Love is A Losing Game", softer and quieter than "Back to Black", covering some of the same territory -- but dropping all and any cynicism. Like when you know someone for months or years and then she tells you something about herself you never heard before, like a moment when the curtains come up.


The song: Amy Winehouse, "Love Is A Losing Game"; 2006

Right now I am resisting the strong desire to disclaim this post: I have friends (of more quantity and quality than I could have asked for, to be frank), I have a life and a job and reasons to leave the house, so I'm not THAT lonely and it's not THAT bad. Which is true. It's not THAT bad. But it still feels bad sometimes, and I'm not in the mood to hide that anymore.

Guess that's just the Triscuits person in me.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Clock Strikes Upon The Hour And The Sun Begins To Fade: Love

I started my blog with a post about the Mature Break-Up Song.

In the almost-year since then I've wrestled a lot with the question of what my blog is about and for.

The question slips away when I try to grab it, so I think my blog must be about and for a lot of things.

In the next few weeks I expect you'll be seeing me talk about a few of them just because it's what I'm thinking about because that's what you do around anniversaries.

(Particularly first anniversaries of things you weren't thinking a year ahead about when you started them.)


So yes, the mature break-up song was on my mind about a year ago because I was trying to maturely go through a break-up. I certainly would not have thought about it in that way at the time because -- now this is one thing I definitely have learned about "maturity" -- when you are actually being mature in this life you rarely think of it that way.

In fact the times in my life where I was walking around thinking to myself "Oh man I totally got this maturity thing on LOCK. DOWN. right now!" are now universally times when I look back and wonder, "WHAT WAS I THINKING?"

The answer is, that. "I am being so mature about this." Nope, you're not.


But the other, and equally important, thing is this: maturity is a journey, not a destination.

A journey of a thousand miles that starts with a single step, and on which you should probably consider singing like no one's listening.

Because if you truly love something let it go, and if it never comes back it was never yours after all!

And women are like tea bags, haha, you never know their strength until you get them into hot water.

Which is important to keep in mind, as no one can make you feel inferior without your permission.

You ever wonder if there's a reason all these phrases are printed on T-shirts and mugs and the inside of Dove chocolate wrappers?

Could it be because they are actually true??


So what it comes down to is the combination of, you guessed it, toughness and vulnerability. That's what I think being mature is about.

It's entirely possible that Future Me thinks I am being ridiculous right now but HEY FUTURE ME, I bet you still think this song is the bomb.

The song: Whitney Houston, "I Wanna Dance With Somebody"; 1987


Sunday, February 3, 2013

I Called Your Cell Phone My Love But You Didn't Respond: A Conversation

Editor's Note: The following post is presented in the form of a conversation between myself and my dear friend Emma Claire Foley, who recently revived her own blogging efforts with Having An Empty Mind. When I asked her to describe her blog, she said, "Uh. . .the description I had is pretty good but I don't remember what it is." And indeed, it is pretty good. So to learn that, and many other things of interest, click the words that are a different color.


I would also like to say that, unlike as in most blog posts done this way, we are not on Gchat. We are actually sitting next to each other.



Me: Let me just say to start this off with informing readers that when this song first started up I said, "Oh I love those string quartet covers of pop songs, I know the music world thinks they are unbearably terrible and cheesy, but I just love them!"

And it turned out to be an actual SONG. Boy, was I surprised -- and delighted.

Emma: I mean, initially I thought of this song as like, yknow, part of the mass of obnoxious noise I subject myself to by leaving the house. 

Me: And, I should say because not everyone reading this knows you in person, you are a person who leaves the house a LOT. When I think "Emma Claire Foley activities", "driving around listening to pop music on the radio" is. . .high. Would you say that's fair?

Emma: I'd say I'm past my prime in this, but it's still definitely an important part of my life.

Me: Oh. Cool.

Emma: But THEN, occasionally I experience a moment of, like, falsely low resistance. And I happened to hear the opening from this song, and sometimes when I experience the opening of a song that's excluded from my category of "songs I will listen to" I think, "oooh, fresh start!"

And the phrasing of this song, the way she puts the -- she forces her words to have a melody -- is just so awkward.

Particularly on the first line, "The day I. . .first saw yoooooou. . .you told me. . .you'd never fall in loooooooove." That just doesn't need to be SAID, much less SUNG.

Me: This seems like a good time to say that I also just heard you describe this song as "hey, unavailable man, I'm not like all the others!" I think you also said it was the worst, most distilled version of that particular line of thought, which I can't really argue with.

Emma: Yeah. That brings me to my SECOND thing about the opening: the first painful outbreath describes a situation that's absolutely familiar, and absolutely embedded in the consciousness of, like, any advice column reader or writer EVER. I mean this is square one, "what do I do??/I'm not going to take your advice!!", stuff.

Me: It's gloriously un-self-aware! Actually I'm going to pause and reference what I feel are the other songs of this particular micro-micro-genre that I've showcased on this blog: "Invisible", by Clay Aiken, and "Ice", by Daryl Hall and John Oates.

And yes Emma, you just saw me type "Hall & Oates", go back, erase, and write "Daryl Hall and John Oates".

My love is real.

Emma: Your love IS real. There is not a shred of irony in your love of Hall & Oates.


Back to Demi. 

Emma: The thing that's frustrating is that it IS possible to do this same feeling in a way that IS self-aware, and sexy. Like in "Lovefool"!

Me: OMG I love that song.

Personally the line that tipped me over into a certain kind of love for this song is what I put in the title: I called your cell phone, my love, but you didn't respond.

That is just IT. I wouldn't have made the advice column connection unless you did, but I'm glad you did because that is exactly what I love about advice columns. The way people will just write things like, "Dear Prudence/Sugar/Dan Savage/Abby/Carolyn Hax/A Queer Chick, I am in a seven year relationship with an amazing man. We are so happy and our life is just 100 percent great. A few months ago I found out that, while out drinking with his work buddies on a trip, after a few beers, he participated in a Satanic sex ritual. We've talked about this, and I've told him that my strict Pentecostal upbringing (I'm not practicing) makes Satanic sex rituals uncomfortable for me.

How can I talk to him about our differences in opinion about Satanic sex? I'd like to show him that I'm open to his interest, and I don't want to be pushy, but I want him to respect my boundaries."

And as a reader you are just sitting there like:


Emma: If you choose to listen to this song and not be bothered by the way she insists on breathing, it seems like two of the main ways that are available for you to place yourself in the song (which I think is what listening to pop music IS) are: 1) a naivety vacation, like "Yeah, Demi! I'm different too!" and 2) in the same rubber-necky way you read an advice column, which in a way requires even MORE faith.

Me: I totally agree with you, and I think advice columns also do have that same duality, but I'm interested to know WHY you think the second option requires more faith.

Emma: I guess I maybe meant "cynicism" by "faith". In that the situation this song describes, which is a girl so stupidly devoted to a guy that she's actually gone insane, is so normalized. That the song was written almost as a comment on itself.

Me: I agree with you and I disagree. Not to hammer on the advice column thing, but something that seems common to me across the people I know who LOVE advice columns is that they are what I would call "frustrated humanists". People who genuinely WANT to love people but who are, indeed, often frustrated by the stupidity and straight-up toxicity/insanity they see around them. Which is why they enjoy seeing inside other people's minds so much, so they can reassure themselves that people really ARE crazy.

Does that sound bad? It sounds kinda bad. But speaking personally, it feels better to think of myself as a crazy person in a world full of crazy people than as. . .alone, I guess, or at least in a minority.

I think this often expresses itself as cynicism but comes from a somewhat different root.

Emma: That, I think is the final failing of this song: it does tap into that impulse, but it's just not good enough to offer that kind of comfort.

You're left feeling like, "Oh. That is what it is.

And I just hate the way she breathes SO MUCH."

The song: Demi Lovato,  "Give Your Heart A Break"; 2011


Well that was fun! Thanks to ECF for hanging out on my blog. This is one of my favorite activities.

I'd like to start having more conversations with you. That's why you'll now found a place to click and leave a comment.

I really appreciate that you read, in general, this.


With Your Carefully-Designed Topless Swimsuit: Travel

I've told you before that I spend time thinking about what songs I would put into a Wes Anderson movie if my life were a Wes Anderson movie,

but here's a song that's actually FROM a Wes Anderson movie. ("Hotel Chevalier", the short film before The Darjeeling Limited, in point of fact!).

I'm thinking of it today because I was thinking about it all last week, when I was in Singapore.

I don't precisely know why it came to my mind then, but I think it must have something to do with two things, both common to Wes Anderson movies I think: a) description of the international elite life, a life one comes into contact with and thinks about WAY more in Singapore than in Michigan, for evident reasons, and b) distinction between inner travel and outer travel.

This last is something that particularly interests me, as someone who can never seem to help doing too much of the former and perhaps not enough of the latter.

(I also love the line "both touched with a burning ambition" and the way he sings it; it pops into my head at random intervals. . .)

I love this song for what it posits, that the mind of another person is the strangest and most beautiful foreign country of all.


The song: Peter Sarstedt, "Where Do You Go"; 1969