Sunday, July 20, 2014

Join, or Die: Neoliberalism, Epistemontology, Social Harmony and the (Invisible) Invisible Hand

There's been a good bit conversation recently about the merits and demerits of "public philosophy" and, as someone who considers herself committed to public philosophy (whatever that is). I'm always happy to stumble across a piece of remarkably insightful philosophical work in the public realm.  Case in point:  Robin James (Philosophy, UNC-Charlotte) posted a really fascinating and original short-essay on the Cyborgology blog a couple of days ago entitled "An attempt at a precise & substantive definition of 'neoliberalism,' plus some thoughts on algorithms." There, she primarily aims to distinguish the sense in which we use the term "neoliberalism" to indicate an ideology from its use as a historical indicator, and she does so by employing some extremely helpful insights about algorithms, data analysis, the mathematics of music, harmony, and how we understand consonance and dissonance.  I'm deeply sympathetic with James' underlying motivation for this piece, namely, her concern that our use of the term "neoliberalism" (or its corresponding descriptor "neoliberal") has become so ubiquitous that it is in danger of being evacuated of "precise and substantive" meaning altogether.  I'm sympathetic, first, as a philosopher, for whom precise and substantive definitions are as essential as hammers and nails are to a carpenter. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I'm sympathetic with James' effort because as Jacques Derrida once said "the more confused the concept, the more it lends itself to opportunistic appropriation."  Especially in the last decade or so, "neoliberalism" is perhaps the sine qua non term that has been, by both the Left and the Right, opportunistically appropriated.

James' definition of neoliberalism's ideological position ("everything in the universe works like a deregulated, competitive, financialized, capitalist market") ends up relying heavily on her distinction of neoliberalism as a particular type of ideology, i.e., one "in which epistemology and ontology collapse into one another, an epistemontology." In sum, James conjectures that neoliberal epistemontology purports to know what it knows (objects, beings, states of affairs, persons, the world) vis-a-vis "the general field of reference of economic anaylsis." It presumes, first, that everything that can be known is known best on the model of market-logic. But, as James (and Foucault) note, the coherency of that epistemological presumption includes (and often veils) another, almost indistinguishable, ontological presumption: namely, that everything that is is a market. Of course, such "epistemontologies" end up being massive feedback loops, philosophically speaking; they produce and reproduce the very phenomena that they claim to be simply discovering and analyzing. (Fwiw, I think there are some strains of psychoanalytic theory that suffer the same fate.) The fact that neoliberalism, as an ideology, is first and foremost an epistemontology of this sort provides James a way of explaining why most of the historical manifestations of it (she includes "big data, post-identity politics, globalization, creative destruction, resilience, sustainability, privatization, biopolitics, relational aesthetics") are consistently understood through algorithms. Neoliberals, believing that all that is is a market, are ever in search of better predictive mathematical formulas for understanding how the agents of that market will freely and rationally determine their interests and direct the market... and/yet/but, by virtue of those same algorithmic analyses, neoliberals also end up manipulating the market, its agents, and whatever remains of what we take to be the "freedom" involved in "free choice."

One of the most interesting parts of James' essay, to my mind, is her (excellent, but all too brief!) explanation of the prominence neoliberal ideology affords to algorithms. Neoliberal economic analyses, to quote James, "find the signal in the noise" of phenomena and human behavior by combining two sets of ideological commitments: (1) a commitment to particular epsitemontological presumptions (the world/reality is a market, agents in the world are intentionally rational, agents' behaviors are systematic/non-random/predictable and, thus, can be known/understood) and (2) a commitment to algorithmic analysis, constant mathematical modeling, which is itself necessitated by the presumptions of (1). James teases out the implications with a musical metaphor: one way to understand harmony is as a consequence of "phase convergence" (when wave forms with different frequencies fall into sync); if we understand individuals as distinct wave forms with different frequencies, as neoliberalism does, then we can allow for the possibility of "social harmony" without needing to collapse the distinct wave forms into one another or erase their difference in frequency. Metaphorically, neoliberalism can understand social harmony as something that "naturally" occurs in phases-- asynchronous things will, over time, fall in and out of sync with each other-- without sacrificing neoliberalism's commitment to the idiosyncratic, free, rational intentionality of individual agents. Thus, "achieving" social harmony, if that is a legitimate project at all, ought not be a project of regulating individuals so that they operate more in sync with one another, but rather staying out of their way. (Don't tread on me!) Of course, the great irony evident in neoliberals' ubiquitous efforts at data-collection-- their constant, relentless and mostly covert encroachment into our "private" lives-- is that such efforts are justified on the basis of safeguarding our individual freedom to engage in the market according to our own interests, as those interests are freely determined by us.

Never mind that what an uncritical surrender to algorithmic analyses actually does-- little by little, Google search by Google search, Facebook like by Facebook like, Amazon purchase by Amazon purchase-- is eventually come to determine not only our interests, but also our "freely, intentionally rational" selections among them.


To the extent that there's anything really missing in James' argument-- and, to be fair, hers is a very short piece that does not pretend to offer a full analysis-- I think it's an under-emphasis on another presumption of neoliberal epistemontology: the market (which we ought remember, for neoliberals, is all that is the case) is ever guided by an Invisible Hand.  James' focus on algorithms and mathematical modeling is immensely valuable for understanding many of the epistemological commitments and strategies of neoliberal epistemontology, but I'd just like to unpack the implications of the ontological (or, really, onto-theological) commitments of the neoliberal "reality-as-market" worldview briefly here.

Perhaps the single most important proposition in modern capitalist economic theory, inherited from Adam Smith, is that competitive markets do a good job of allocating resources, that such markets channel individuals' self-interest toward the collective good as if directed by an "invisible hand."  (I won't detail the manner in which such a proposition qualifies as "onto-theological" here, partly because there simply isn't room to do so, but mostly because I think it is self-evident.) There is, of course, a long and varied history of philosophical and/or religious commitments to the world-as-purposive or the world-as-Good or the world-as-intelligently-designed.  Despite their differences in detail, and despite their sometimes outright antagonisms, what they share in common is a certain, fundamentally ontological, inflection that posits all that is the case as aiming-to-be or destined-to-be orderly, rational, if not also just and morally good.

One of the problems with neoliberalism's particular ("invisible hand") iteration of onto-theological prejudice-- and this is something that James' account of the neoliberal "algorithmic modelling" fetish made more clear to me-- is that it effectively blinds itself to the manner in which it not only does, but must, conflate the Hand-that-Guides with the hand(s)-that-are-guided.  When synchronicity or harmony is absent, when dissonance is resonant, when the aleatory interrupts or real human freedom (s'il y en a) insists-- that is to say, when the Invisible Hand is not only non-apparent but also non-existent-- neoliberalism's epistemonto(theo)logical commitments force neoliberals to, quite literally, phish or cut bait.  And what is phishing, after all, but the manufacturing of an Invisible Hand?

What are drones, for that matter?

So, perhaps (but not really) pace James, I'm not convinced that neoliberalism is as passive with regard to "social harmony" as her analysis might suggest.  (For the record, I don't think she meant to suggest that neoliberalism is passive and I'm confident that she doesn't think that.)  Neoliberals aren't simply playing around with predictive algorithms and waiting for a harmonic or synchronous phase convergence--that is NOT James' thesis, for the record-- but rather, I suspect, neoliberals' epistemontological commitments put them squarely in the seat of the remote-operator of a drone we might call "Invisible Hand."  And, not to put too fine a point on it, but the "Invisible Hand" drone is a deadly effective weapon that basically works like this: defund or deregulate, make sure things don't work, wait for people to get angry, then privatize.  That's the formula Noam Chomsky detailed in his brilliant essay "The State-Corporate Complex: A Threat To Freedom and Survival", in which he also sagely reminded us that the only occurrence of the phrase "invisible hand" in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations appears in a passage that critiques what we now call neoliberalism.

To wit, all this has inclined me to think that the customary use of the Gadsden flag ("Don't tread on me!") to represent neoliberalism is perhaps not as appropriate as opting instead for the Franklin woodcut ("Join, or Die") that I used at the top of this post.  "Join, or Die" seems to be far more indicative of the neoliberal imperative, shouted into the panopticon of our modern world and echoed off every wall by banks, political parties, corporations, families, nation-states, social groups and social media. I think it's consistent with James' Foucaultian-inspired insights to say that the post-9/11 neoliberal project determines even more than what Foucault conjectured contemporary notions of nation-state "sovereignty" determine.  The sovereign nation-state determined "[who] to make live and [who] to let die," but neoliberal entities-- hardly ever nation-states anymore-- determine who to make live and who to make die.  Because "living" is utterly unrecognizable except as an algorithmic variable by big neoliberal data, there is no "living" that is not "joining."

And there is no not-joining without dying.

Friday, July 11, 2014

AMERICA! F*CK YEAH!... or, Dinesh D'Souza and the Chocolate Factory

It is indeed difficult to imagine the world without America, which is what the one-sheet movie poster for Dinesh D'Souza's America dares us to imagine. After all, America is every bit as much a symbol, an aspiration and an idea as it is a nation-state. However, it is not difficult to imagine the world without D'Souza's "America" or its cinematic rendering, a film that is part costume drama, part morality tale, part manifesto, too much revisionist history and a whole lot of  downright D'Souzian fantasy.  Those already suspect of D'Souza's worldview (not to mention his political cronyism and/or personal moral fortitude) will likely view this movie, if they view it at all, as right-wing propaganda, at which they will snort before promptly dismissing it. Those inclined more favorably toward D'Souza's worldview, on the other hand, are likely to crank up the Team America theme song ("America! F*ck Yeah!"), wave a flag and pat each other on the back for their patriotism, happy to have at last been able to steal one free breath in the suffocating liberal environment that they call Obamastan.  I saw the film last night in a theater filled with the latter group--I surmise as much from the audience's enthusiastic applause when the credits rolled--and after I righted my head from the "wait, whaa?" side-cocked position in which it had been stuck for the last 103 minutes, I genuinely didn't know how to react.  Should I be offended? disgusted? disheartened? afraid?

Yes.

First things first: D'Souza's film amounts to little more than an almost two-hour long and very well-produced negative campaign ad. D'Souza doesn't back any specific potential Presidential candidates in America (though Sen. Rand Paul gets a hefty amount of screen-time), but he does devote a significant part of the film to a fairly vicious and thoroughly-duplicitous preemptive strike against (likely Democratic Presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton.  If D'Souza were a PAC, he'd almost certainly be guilty of running afoul (again) of the Federal Election Campaign Act with this film. As it is, he's mostly guilty of running a little too close to Sergei Eisenstein.

After sleeping on it for a night, I woke up today thinking that D'Souza's film, more so than being merely propagandist and revisionist (which it most certainly and deeply disturbingly is), was also vaguely reminiscent of the Roald Dahl children's story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  The protagonist in Dahl's novel is the boy Charlie, of course, but the most interesting character is and has always been the mysterious and eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka.  Now, to be fair, there is more than a little bit of Charlie in Dinesh D'Souza, and to the extent that is true, it is as difficult to object to D'Souza's fantastical indulgences and hyperbolic glorifications of America as it is to object to a child's belief in Santa Claus. Dahl's Charlie, impoverished and hungry but good-hearted, longed above all for a glimpse inside the Shangri-la that was Wonka's chocolate factory, and Charlie believed with equal parts idealism and desperation that (in Dahl's words) "there was one thing that the grown-ups also knew, and it was this: that however small the chance might be of striking lucky, the chance is there.  The chance had to be there."  D'Souza, an immigrant who against all odds got his Golden Ticket to America and who existentially confirmed that, yes, in fact, the chance IS there, is undoubtedly one of the very best people to tell the story of America's promise.

Alas, if only D'Souza had told the whole story, told the story right (and not Right), told the story of American exceptionalism qualified by the always and ever against-all-odds exception that he is, and not figured himself as the rule that he so desperately wants himself and his adopted country to be.  If only he hadn't so obviously cherry-picked his interviewees (Chomsky, Zinn, Alinksky et al) as targets and then also cherry-picked  their utterly non-representative detractors as anecdotal stories. If only he hadn't invested so much energy and passion in divesting the disenfranchised of their efforts at combating disenfranchisement.  If only he hadn't used his 103 minutes of beautifully-produced film to effectively delegitimatize the entire history of progressive American race, gender and class initiatives, debunking them without either any demonstration of first understanding them or their historical/cultural context.  If only D'Souza had just stuck to being Dahl's "Charlie," the down-and-out kid who got lucky.  If only he wasn't, as I suspect he is, more Veruca Salt or Violet Beauregarde or Mike Teavee than he is Charlie.

In fact, I suspect, given his ideological and financial influence at this point, D'Souza is far more akin to Willy Wonka than any of the starry-eyed children longing for a Wonka's golden ticket in Dahl's story.  Self-sequestered in his self-made, self-absolving, ridiculously profitable and quietly fantastical Chocolate Factory, Dahl's Willy Wonka existed in a manufactured world of sugar and sweetness that was maintained only by virtue of a healthy infusion of paranoia, neurosis and distorted reality. Dahl really was a genius at making our otherwise-unreflective allegiance to childhood fantasies questionable, if not also wholly objectionable, and that genius is no more evident than in his rendering of the character of Willy Wonka.  One of my favorite lines from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has always been, purely for its cringe-inducing candor and probity, this one by Wonka:
Whipped cream isn't whipped cream at all if it hasn't been whipped with whips, just like poached eggs isn't poached eggs unless it's been stolen in the dead of the night.
Read the above line as a child: it's funny. Read it as an adult: it's downright terrifying. The conflation of "whipped" and whipped, of "poached" and poached-- a difference so easy to elide, so subtle, so slight, so attenuated and yet so extraordinarily, profoundly and critically important-- constitutes the difference that makes a difference.  (Not least of all to the Oompa-loompas, amirite?!) For what it's worth, that difference is the long and short of what America misses, if not also intentionally conceals.  D'Souza is to "America" what Willy Wonka is to his Chocolate Factory: so thoroughly convinced of the sweetness of its productions that he's been blinded to the whipping and poaching that that production requires.

And that delusion of D'Souza/Wonka is what you get in America. Here's hoping you have the stomach to stand it, because it's really enough to give you a very-"American" version of diabetes.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

On Trigger Warnings, Codes of Conduct and Self-Policing in Philosophy

The blogosphere has been all abuzz with commentary on the merits and demerits of “trigger warnings” (henceforth, TWs) of late, which has sparked an interesting conversation not only about what sorts of norms we ought to strive for in the Academy but also how we can or ought police those norms. With regard to TWs specifically, the debate seems to be over how much accommodation should be afforded to individual students’ personal (sometimes traumatic) experiences and, correspondingly, how to weigh that accommodation vis-à-vis professorial interest in and responsibility for maintaining the academic integrity of course-content. As is the case with many other issues of this kind, disputants are largely divided along philosophical/ideological lines: those who tend to prioritize individual responsibility and accountability (e.g., Jack Halberstam) on the one side and, on the other side, those who advocate a more cooperative/communal sense of self-care (e.g., Angus Johnston). Two quick disclaimers before we get into things, though: (1) I'll concede that I've just employed grossly-generalized characterizations of the two sides, and (2) those generalizations are also non-comprehensive, as they leave out an important third category of disputants (see Natalie Cecire's recent contribution) in the TW controversy, namely, those who are helpfully and productively engaging in meta-critique, who recognize the limitations of both dominant “positions” in this conversation and who are interested in articulating how those positions are both mutually-implicating and mutually-contaminating.

 As someone who almost exclusively teaches courses in moral and political philosophy—that is to say, someone whose bread and butter is trigger-prone course material—I find myself genuinely torn about my own position on TWs. I include something like a TW on all of my syllabi as a part of my “Dr. J's Rules” syllabus-supplement... but my TW is very broad and generic, and it is aimed more at establishing a discursive ethos for the classroom than it is at “warning” students that some of the course-content may trigger psychological distress. (You can read my version here. It’s Rule #7.) Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I’d have to admit that I find myself dispositionally disinclined to “coddle” students as a rule, which sometimes results in my mistaking legitimate accommodation for over-accommodation. I don’t think I’m alone in that attitude. For better or worse, I think it’s a generational prejudice, but that's a topic for another day.  My interest here is not to weigh in on TWs specifically, but rather to say something about the manner in which the controversy over mandating TWs—making them an official or unofficial rule, an “ought,” that is to say, giving them normative heft or leverage—reflects a broader trend in academia (and, more problematically, in my discipline of Philosophy) that I find worrisome.

Let me just air the dirty laundry here at the start: professional philosophers are perhaps the sine qua non case when it comes to Groups Desperately In Need of Corrective Disciplining.  And, so far at least, we've been downright awful at policing ourselves.

At present, the professional organization for philosophers (the American Philosophical Association) is considering whether or not to devise and implement an official Code of Conduct for its constituents. The APA decided to do so for a number of very good reasons, not the least of which is three consecutive years of increasingly terrible behavior by and increasingly embarrassing press coverage of professional philosophers, but more directly in response to a petition (initiated by Drs. Eleonore Stump and Helen De Cruz and co-signed by 673 supporters) for some statement of ethical norms APA members might expect to govern our collective. Despite my genuine sympathy with this initiative, I’ve been critical of implementing an APA Code of Conduct for a number of reasons.  In fact, my colleague Dr. Ed Kazarian and I co-authored a piece on the newAPPS blog a few months ago entitled “Please Do NOT Revise Your Tone,” articulating some of our concerns with codifying what are in effect professional/cultural norms and, more to the point, our objection to enforcing codified cultural norms.  Our worry, as we explained on newAPPS, is that there are many good reasons to believe that Codes of Conduct for professional behavior are likely to legitimate and reinforce, rather than govern or correct, the behavior-patterns of those with the most influence and power in our discipline/profession.  Inasmuch as the behavior-patterns in Philosophy (as in academia more broadly) most in need of correction tend to reflect structural and systemic  problems—racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism and ableism most generally and, more specifically, also a number of historically-sedimented ideological prejudices about what and who counts as “real” scholarship and scholars—it is hard to see how a Code of Conduct could be an effective remedy.  Codes of Conduct aim to regulate the behaviors of individual agents within communities, on the basis of norms determined (in the ideal) by that community.  What they do not do, and cannot do, is regulate the norms by which communities determine their codes of behavior, nor to they regulate how the "determiners" of those determinations are determined.

There's the rub, really.  Especially in professional Philosophy—one of the Whitest and most Male-dominated academic disciplines in U.S. higher education, woefully backward in terms of inclusion, belligerently resistant to change, internally at war with itself, small and elite enough to be particularly susceptible to oligarchism and yet, at the same time, thoroughly persuaded of its own indispensable merit—there is good reason to be suspect of its efforts at self-policing.

For those of us who still count ourselves (however problematically) among the advocates of classical liberalism, of the fundamental principles of limited government, of democracy and of the rule of law, the separation of powers is perhaps the preeminent Virtue.  It comes down to this, really: those who make the law ought not also be invested with the power to enforce the law, even less so with the power to interpret the law.  Regular readers of this blog no doubt already know that I count myself among the advocates of classical liberalism, but let the record reflect that I also count myself among its many critics, who are painfully cognizant of the ways in which a reductive commitment to neutrality, impartiality and meritocracy deafens one to the sorts of critical (and critically important) voices that never seem to even get a seat at the table. (See my comment on Eric Schleisser's smart and excellent post "On a Code of Conduct in Philosophy" on his consistently smart and excellent blog Digressions&Impressions.) For both of those reasons, I mistrust "self-policing" and for both of those (pro- and anti-classical liberalism) reasons, I'm deeply concerned by academia's (and Philosophy's) confidence that it can effectively self-police.

I'm much more comfortable saying that I oppose the APA's current initiative to institute a Code of Conduct for professional philosophers than I am saying that I oppose mandating trigger warnings on course syllabi, but I don't think my concerns with respect to the two are unrelated.  The sorts of cultural norms that, when challenged, make calls for self-policing necessary are the same norms than make the call for self-policing inadvisable, in my view.  That is to say, if the "self" that self-polices is the same "self" that is being policed, I'm not sure that we can reasonably expect that policing to amount to much more than: Move along, now.  There's nothing to see here.

On the other hand, if we insist instead that the fundamentally structural/systemic errors, which continue to generate, regenerate and reproduce academia's blind-spots and which make its BAU operations more and more distasteful, aren't really a matter for more and better police--or, as I think Robin James et al have rightly noted, a matter for determinations by what I call the "Neoliberal Triple-A" (adjusters, accountants and actuaries)-- then maybe, just maybe, we can start to wean ourselves from the European Enlightenment teat enough to actually start being progressive, instead of just being liberal.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 28: A Song That Reminds You of Your Boyfriend/Girlfriend (if you don't have one, make one up)

The official prompt for today asks for "a song that reminds you of your boyfriend/girlfriend" but also hilariously includes the parenthetical stipulation "(if you don't have one, make one up)".  Let's all just take a second to guffaw out loud at that one.

I don't currently have a boyfriend or girlfriend, but I've had both many times and for various durations in the past, which (curiously enough) doesn't make it any harder or easier to imagine the right song selection for today.  My guess is that today's prompt would be equally difficult for the committed and the uncommitted.  That is to say, if you have a boyfriend/girlfriend, then you're obligated to choose a song that reminds you of him or her as they actually are, warts and all, which could make for a very delicate selection.  And if you don't have a girlfriend/boyfriend, then you're likely inclined to choose a song that might remind you of some perfect person to whom you imagine yourself committed, but who is probably impossible to realize in a real person, as fantasies always are, making your selection either moot or childishly naive. So, the best that I am able, I'm going to try to walk the tightrope of that divide with my choice today.

Full disclosure: I chose this song for Day 5 ("A Song That Reminds You of Someone") in the first round of the 30 Day Song Challenge that I did in 2011.  You can read my whole account of that story here, but the long and short of it is that I said this song reminds me of the way my father is reminded of my mother.  I won't recount the whole thing again; I'll just say that I don't think this is the most traditionally "romantic" or ideal or fantastical song to capture whatever it is that love feels (or ought to feel) like, but I do think it's real, and really poignant, and really honest, and a whole host of other things that, for better or worse, I'd hope reminded me of the person I loved n real life.

My song pick for today is Billy Joel's "She's Always A Woman," performed live here:



Never before in the three years that I've been doing the 30 Day Song Challenge have I reprinted the lyrics to one of my song selections in their entirety... but for today, I will, and I will have nothing else to add.

She can kill with a smile / She can wound with her eyes 
She can ruin your faith with her casual lies 
And she only reveals what she wants you to see 
She hides like a child / but she's always a woman to me 

She can lead you to love / She can take you or leave you 
She can ask for the truth / But she'll never believe you
And she'll take what you give her as long as it's free 
Yeah, she steals like a thief / but she's always a woman to me 

Oh, she takes care of herself 
She can wait if she wants / She's ahead of her time 
Oh, and she never gives out / And she never gives in 
She just changes her mind 

She will promise you more than the Garden of Eden 
Then she'll carelessly cut you and laugh while you're bleedin' 
But she'll bring out the best and the worst you can be 
Blame it all on yourself  'cause she's always a woman to me 

Oh, she takes care of herself 
She can wait if she wants / She's ahead of her time 
Oh, and she never gives out / And she never gives in 
She just changes her mind 

She is frequently kind / And she's suddenly cruel 
She can do as she pleases / She's nobody's fool 
But she can't be convicted / She's earned her degree 
And the most she will do Is throw shadows at you 
But she's always a woman to me

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Friday, June 27, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 27: A Song You Make Fun Of

I'm just going to go ahead and concede that I am also guilty of all the things I make fun of in this post.

My pick for today is the song that everyone loves to ridicule while also acting ridiculous.  I don't know if there is an official organization for professional wedding/reunion/conference DJ's-- if not, there should be, 'cause y'all have nothing to lose but your chains, yo!-- but if there is such an organization, I am 100% confident that one of its by-laws must include a requirement that all members play that funky music at every event.  And I'm not talking about any old funky music, of course.  I'm talking about THAT funky music.

You know what I'm talking about, white boy.

If you've ever been to a wedding, a reunion, a conference reception, a dance party-- hell, if you've ever stuck around to hear a dive-bar band play past midnight-- you have most certainly heard the one-hit wonder by the (otherwise faded-into-obscurity) American funk-rock band Wild Cherry, "Play That Funky Music."  Among its many, even if highly questionable, virtues is that "Play That Funky Music" was released near the tail-end of the Disco Era in 1976 and (at least according to Wikipedia) represents one of the last impassioned cries by bell-bottomed, tassel-vested, funk-loving people that we DO NOT LET DISCO DIE.  The 80's came and went, of course, and in the course of that decade disco took a pretty mean beating by punk and hard rock and new wave... but disco didn't die.  Thankfully.  That's due in large part to the feisty resilience of disco's constitutive parts-- funk, soul, Latin and psychadelic music--  none of which have ever laid down for nobody, but more so due to the fact that disco is and has always been about dancing, about night life and club life, not to mention also about sin and sex and drugs and loving to love you, baby.

It's hard not to make fun of "Play That Funky Music" when you hear it, even as you wallow in the pleasure of it like a pig in shit.  Just go ahead and try not to dig this shit:



I'm not gonna even pretend that it isn't the case that one of the things I love most about this song is that, when played live, it somehow convinces every single white boy, regardless of how little rhythm or groove he has, to lay down and boogie when he hears this song.  C'mon really, is there anything more satisfying to make fun of than a white boy who isn't funky, but who is FEELING IT and, what is more, who is being called to feel it in the very lyrics of the song?!  There's something adorably pathetic about that whole spectacle, kind of like the audition rounds on American Idol, that just makes you point and laugh and at the same time say "awww, poor baby, you go on and GO with your bad self."

So, in the future, just when it hits you, when somebody turns around and says play that funky music, white boy!, remember that you can ridicule all you want, we all do it... just as long as you also lay down and boogie and play that funky music so disco never dies.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 26: A Song By Your Favorite Band

My choice for a favorite band will come as no surprise to readers of this blog.  I'm an unapologetic, unrepentant, unreserved and incorrigible Rolling Stones fan, through and through.  I wrote a longish post here on this blog a few years ago about my love for the Stones (for a contest sponsored by No Depression magazine) entitled "Why Exile On Main Street Gets My Rocks Off."  And in the two previous years that I've done this 30 Day Song Challenge, the Rolling Stones have showed a number of times, including for the categories of my favorite song, for a song from my favorite band and for a song you want played at your funeral.   With some slight modifications in the prompts, I could easily do a 30 Day Song Challenge just using songs by the Rolling Stones.  (For the record, I think I could also do 30 days of Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Emmylou HarrisJohnny Cash, Aretha Franklin and maybe also Etta James.) I won't rehearse again here all that I've said about the Stones before, but suffice it to say that they are about as close to a perfect band that I know.  They are the loud and messy roux-- that thickening combination of country, blues, folk and gospel-- that makes rock n' roll taste so sinfully delicious.

Since I've picked Stones' songs so many times before on this blog, I thought I'd go for one of their more obscure and under-appreciated tracks for today's selection.  It's a track off of my favorite Stones album, Beggar's Banquet-- also, and not un-coincidentally, the most Memphis-sounding of their albums-- recorded in 1968 at Olympic Studios.  This is a winning album from start to finish, but I have a particular fondness for Track 3, "Dear Doctor," a hilarious account by a fully-soused and reluctant groom, attempting his best to leave his bride-to-be (who he describes as a "four-legged sow") at the altar.  Be ye not afraid, though, it all works out in the end:



Just two quick things that I particularly love about this song.  First, the opening line: Oh help me, please Doctor, I'm damaged / There's a pain where there once was a heart.  Such a great lyric, made even more fantastic when one discovers the utter INsincerity with which it is being delivered.  And, second, the fact that the song ends, musically, on an unresolved chord, just as it does lyrically.

Genius.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 25: An Acoustic Song You Love

At this point in my life, I've been playing guitar for about twenty years.  I never had a lesson and I'm not what you would call a very good guitarist, but my skills have been passable-enough to make do in several bar bands and around many a campfire over the years. I got my first guitar at age 19 in a trade for rent money from one of my roommates.  There were nine people living in our large and largely-unkempt house in Boston then, in the early-90's, five of whom were members of a local band, no kidding, called "Bob." So, when one of the guys couldn't make rent one month and offered to give me his old acoustic guitar if I'd cover his part, it seemed as good an opportunity as I'd ever have to try to learn an instrument.  I used to take my guitar down into our basement, where Bob practiced, and just watch them play for hours... then, I'd climb back up the stairs, sit in my room, try to mimic what I saw the guys doing, and (in the words of Bryan Adams) play until my fingers bled.  I only lived in that house with Bob for about a year, but that was enough time for me to learn the 6 or 7 chords necessary to play country, blues and rock n' roll.

Without a doubt, that was the best $85 I spent in my entire life.

It wasn't until many years later that I began writing songs myself and, more generally, feeling comfortable taking some creative liberties with the songs I played.  That's when playing the guitar became really fun, not to mention also therapeutic, and when I probably developed the most as a player.  Still, as anyone who plays an instrument knows, there are also times that one's skill-level kind of plateaus, when you find yourself just playing what you know over and over and over.  Those can be long-lasting and frustrating intervals, when you feel like you're in a rut, like there's nothing new or interesting about your instrument anymore.  And that is a miserable feeling.

About six years ago, I was in one of those ruts when Beyonce Knowles' B'Day album came out. One of the hit singles off of that album was "Irreplaceable," and everybody everywhere was letting you know the box you own was "to the left, to the left."  Anyway, I found myself sitting around in the living room with some of guitar-playing friends and "Irreplaceable" came on the stereo and I thought to myself: that's a pretty straightforward song, and it begins with a guitar strum... I wonder if I could play it?  So, I did. And, in doing so, I climbed out of my miserable guitar-playing rut.

Since then, I've discovered that one of my favorite things to do with a guitar is to play acoustic versions of whatever is on the radio.  The less "acoustic" the original song, the more I like to do it acoustically.  As it turns out, Queen Bey herself also thought that "Irreplaceable" was a pretty good contender for acoustic performance.  Here she is, irreplaceable and unplugged:



For the record, my second favorite non-acoustic song to play acoustically is Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean."  I kill that one, f'real.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 24: A Cover Song

As anyone who has ever played in a band knows, performing cover songs can be a very tricky business.  Most of the time, you want your performance of a cover song to stick close enough to the original that it remains recognizable to your audience-- I mean, that's why you chose to play it, presumably because it's a great song that people want to hear-- but you don't want to play so close to the original that you appear to be copycatting.  Departing from the original in small or large ways, although necessary, is really a sink-or-swim venture.  If you sink, the audience will turn their noses up and huff and think that you "ruined" a classic.  If you swim, they'll be reminded again of why they love that song on the radio and think how great it is to hear live.  But if you really nail it, you just might capture the Holy Grail of cover song performance, i.e., you just might achieve the Better Than The Original (henceforth, BTTO) designation.

The BTTO category is occupied by very few cover versions of great songs, in my opinion, and the contenders for inclusion in that category are passionately argued for and against by music lovers everywhere.  I've heard really good, though ultimately unconvincing, cases made for the White Stripes' "Jolene" (originally a Dolly Parton song), Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" (originally a Leonard Cohen song), Grace Potter & the Nocturnals' "White Rabbit" (originally a Jefferson Airplane song), Bon Iver's "I Can't Make You Love Me" (orginally a Bonnie Raitt song), Nirvana's "The Man Who Sold the World" (originally a David Bowie song) and, of course, the two covers widely considered to be noncontroversial inclusions in the BTTO category:  Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" (originally Dolly Parton) and Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" (orginally Bob Dylan).

I had a hard time making my pick for today.  It basically came down to two contenders.  The one I didn't choose was Three Dog Night's version of "Try A Little Tenderness", mostly because it would take me too long to make the case for any Otis Redding cover being BTTO.  (I still think Three Dog Night managed to pull it off, though!)  Instead, I'm going with Johnny Cash's cover of Three Inch Nails' song "Hurt."  You can listen to the original here, and below is JC's version:



"Hurt" was one of Johnny Cash's last recordings before he died, and you can hear the wear and tear of many years of hard living on this track.  He's an old and lonely man, his body and his voice are failing him, but there's an undeniably rich fount of wisdom in his weakness.  Perhaps that has something to do with my affection for this song, but no more than the absolutely brilliants orchestration and performance by The Man in Black.  One of the markers of a great cover is when the performer can make the song sound as if he or she wrote it originally.  In Cash's many covers of gospel tunes, I've always thought he was a genius at doing that, making them sound like the words were his.  His version of "Hurt" sounds exactly like that, too.  

I recognize that it's more than a little ironic that my pick for my favorite cover song today is a song by Johnny Cash, probably one of the most frequently covered musicians in the history of country and rock n' roll.  But that seems entirely in keeping with the spirit of Johnny Cash and the relationship he had to "roots" music, the music of folk, of poor people and suffering people and people looking for some beauty in this world.  All our songs are variations on pain and triumph, love and heartache, sin and glory.  We humans are just the mouthpieces for those stories.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Monday, June 23, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 23: A Song That Makes You Angry

If you judged only by the tone of our public discourse, you'd have good reason to conclude that we're a very angry country.  According to a recent study by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic magazine, America is feeling much more pluribus than unum these days.  A different study (by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press) confirmed the same, claiming that "Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines-- and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive-- than at any point in the last two decades."  There are many causes to which one could point in explaining this deep and extensive antipathy, some of them known, some of them unknown, many of them occupying the curious Rumsfeldian categories of "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns."  People are angry for different, often opposing, reasons, but what they seem to hold in common is a deep dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.  If it's true that misery loves company, America may be the easiest country in the world to find a companion right now.

Not to oversimplify things, but I think there are basically two types of angry Americans: (1) the type represented by and in Toby Keith's song "The Angry American" and (2) the type who are angered by the type represented in (1).  You can count me among the folks in Category 2.  This song was written shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, released a few months later in May 2002, and it definitely captured a particular variety of American anger that resonated with a lot of people attempting to deal with the new-- unpredictable, precarious and perilous-- world we found ourselves in post-9/11.  According to Keith, the song was meant to memorialize his recently-passed father's patriotism and to lift the morale of American military troops.  It was immediately controversial and continues, I think, to represent a characteristic divide in American political sensibilities.

The official title of the song is "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue."  Unfortunately, the "courtesy" in the title refers to, among other aggressions, getting "a boot in your ass, the American way."  Here's the song:



This song makes me angry as an American, because what it represents is exactly the opposite of what I think should be celebrated about our country.  It's hostile, militaristic, imperialist, unsympathetic, naively nationalistic, full of hubris and blind to the consequences of its aggression.  It makes me angry to hear it and it makes me angry to think that my fellow citizens would concede to being represented that way.

I'm with the Dixie Chicks on this matter, whose response to Toby Keith and his song expressed an anger that I can call my own.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 22: A Song That Would Be The Theme Song To A TV Show About Your Life

That painting to your left is probably my favorite piece of 20thC art.  It's "Sugar Shack" by African-American painter (and former NFL defensive tackle) Ernie Barnes. Barnes once described this painting in an interview as illustrating how dance "utilizes rhythm as a way of resolving physical tension."  I've always appreciated that description of dance, and I've always thought the elongated forms and implied movement of his painting captured it perfectly.  In 1976, Marvin Gaye asked Barnes if he could use the painting as the cover for his album I Want You, lending the painting and Barnes international exposure.

Interestingly, "Sugar Shack" was also featured in the credits of the 1970's television series Good Times, which is how I came to first know the painting.  Good Times, like most 70's sitcoms, had an excellent theme song, which I also happen to use as the ringtone for my wake-up alarm.  Whatever happened to all the good television theme songs, anyway?  Maybe everyone thinks this, but I think a very good case can me made for my childhood years (the 70's and 80's) being the Golden Age for great TV theme songs.  Remember The Greatest American Hero, The Jeffersons, The Facts of Life, Cheers, Diff'rent Strokes, Gimme A Break, The Brady Bunch?  Theme songs had been around since the beginning of television, of course, but they were really perfected in the television of those two decades.  Then, it seems like people just gave up on theme songs sometime in the late 80's.  Weird.

Anyway, if I had to pick a song to be the theme song to a TV show about my life, it would be the theme song from Good Times.  Here it is:



Not getting hassled.  Not getting hustled.  Keeping your head above water.  Making a wave when you can.

Yeah, that about sums it up.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.