Nostalgia

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Cracker: Nostalgia
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“Nostalgia is often the abdication of responsibility.”  Prof.  Eddie Glaude, Jr.

I’ve been thinking about nostalgia these days.  It isn’t as good as it used to be, though. (Insert rimshot).

I started ruminating about nostalgia when my wife and I watched Ken Burns’ Country Music series (which I have also discussed here and here).  It’s a monumental work, and was fascinating to me, despite the fact (or maybe because of the fact) that my knowledge of the genre is pretty limited.  I came of age listening to music in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the type of music that you listened to was a political statement.  If you were a liberal, anti-war type, then you listened to long haired hippy rock and roll.  And if you were a conservative hawk, then you favored cowboy hat, Nudie suit wearing country.   Which, like most generalizations, is overbroad, of course, but there’s a lot of truth in it, and Burns addressed that in the documentary.

It is hard to argue that rock music didn’t branch off from country, when artists like Elvis Presley melded country with what was called “race” music, or rhythm and blues, creating something that was, predictably, rejected by the country music establishment.  Burns also made a big point about the fact that Johnny Cash was politically and socially progressive, even at the height of his popularity, and possibly at the cost of his popularity. It really wasn’t until much later, when I had started listening to more folk/Americana/alt-country music that I began to dip my toes into classic country music.

But what struck me the most about the series was the thread of nostalgia that runs through country music from its very early days.  So much of country music was based on looking back toward what was seen as simpler, better times,  which, to me, was a reaction to the various upheavals in the South and West (from whence this music mostly comes)–the end of slavery, the Great Depression and Dust Bowl poverty and migrations from rural areas to cities, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement, and so on.  When life now is hard, look back to when things were better (or at least seemed so, with the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia).  And often, the reaction to the perceived commercial and “inauthentic” forms of country music was nostalgic–a return to roots, old-time mountain music, bluegrass, and more stripped down, less glossy music.

Then, I went to Princeton over the weekend.  Visiting one’s alma mater makes it almost impossible not to engage in nostalgia, and Princeton is a champion at encouraging it.  Walking through the campus where you lived in your youth floods your brain with memories of that older, simpler time.  But, of course, it isn’t the same place.  New buildings have gone up in the decades since I graduated, and some have been razed.  And the campus is filled with young people, living their own college years, and, to the extent they even notice us alumni, thinking about how old we look.  Not to mention, if I were to assess my college years objectively, there were things that I certainly would have done differently, a realization that sometimes interrupts the warm orange glow of my memories.

I was on campus to attend the Thrive conference focusing on Princeton’s black alumni.  No, I’m not black (although I do have dark skin for a white guy), but Princeton invites back all of its alumni for all of its various affinity group conferences.  Actually, one of the great things about being a Princeton alumnus who lives reasonably close is that the university provides us with many opportunities to hear from professors, prominent and interesting alumni, and students throughout the year.

There was, of course, a good deal of nostalgia–people seeing old friends and talking about old times–but there was also a significant amount of discussion about how things had changed over the years, and whether it was enough change.  At least two of the sessions that I attended directly addressed the question of nostalgia.  The first was led by Professor Glaude, who spent the session mostly reading the first chapter of his forthcoming book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, interspersing observations and comments along the way.  It was a tour de force.  A key point that Glaude raised was about Baldwin’s position that the nostalgic “American Dream” was, in fact, a lie for black Americans, and that failing to understand that results in a failure to understand the black experience in America.

And certainly, this dark side of nostalgia was the underlying basis of the Trump campaign, whose slogan, “Make America Great Again” was nothing more than an attempt to look backwards.  But it begged the question–when was America great, with the clear subtext that its supposed greatness was when white men ruled unquestioned, and the interests of minorities and women were of little or no importance — which is why the white supremacist movement burst back into prominence, when the President is a sympathizer who refused to denounce neo-Nazi violence.

Toward the end of the weekend, I attended a session devoted to a discussion of how Princeton was addressing some of its own less savory history, mostly related to race. Most of the session focused on the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, former University president, whose name is on two significant Princeton institutions.  In 2016, the Black Justice League, a student organization, occupied Princeton president Chris Eisgruber’s office for 33 hours, with a wide-ranging set of demands, including the removal of Wilson’s name, due to his racism.

After gathering comments from various constituencies and historians, Princeton decided, in light of its perception that Wilson’s legacy was mixed, both in his transformation of Princeton and in some of his policies as U.S. President, not to remove the Wilson name, but to take a number of steps to confront Wilson’s history and other problematic parts of its past.  One of those steps was to commission an installation, “Double Sights,” which is located on the plaza in front of the Wilson School for Public and International Affairs.  The designer of the piece, artist Walter Hood, an African-American who recently was awarded a Macarthur Fellowship and the Gish Prize, cogently explained how his project was intended to address Wilson’s legacy.  As President Eisgruber said at the dedication, which followed the session,  “It is disruptive by design. ‘Double Sights’ exposes the profound contradictions in Wilson’s life and character, and in so doing, it challenges us to confront the fault lines in our society and the tensions within the human soul.”  So, if you agreed with the university’s approach toward dealing with Wilson, the installation appears to be a good start.

However, it was clear that not everyone agreed with the way Princeton was acting, and most of the comments from the audience were negative.  One black alum who graduated in the 70s was adamant that Wilson’s name needed to be erased from its positions of honor, and he was joined in that sentiment by a recent alum who was one of the founders of the Black Justice League, and a current student, among others, one of whom pointed out that the Wilson School is literally the whitest building on campus.  It was a stark reminder of the power of history to affect current attitudes and passions, and the need to reassess the “good old days” when they actually weren’t all that good (for most people).

Our featured song, “Nostalgia,” by Cracker, references Stonewall Jackson’s arm, which had been amputated and buried and never reunited with the rest of the traitor’s body (although it has reportedly been exhumed and reburied).  Of course, the “Lost Cause” narrative is one of the most insidious examples of nostalgia in this country’s history, and it has resulted in a remarkable amount of memorializing of the rebelling traitors and as an excuse for continued oppression of black Americans.  Cracker, by the way, chose its name, in part, because they were making music “based on country, bluegrass and [a] good dose of ‘White boy blues-rock, southern rock, and soul influenced rock. Things like The Band, Little Feat even Lynyrd Skynyrd,” which someone suggested sounded like “Cracker Soul Music.”

People are always going to look backwards, but it is important to assess the past with a fresh eye, without fear of what that examination might find, and with a desire to improve what needs improvement.  As Representative Terri Sewell, an African-American member of Princeton’s Class of 1986, and the speaker at the Thrive closing dinner, stated in a New York Times op-ed, “Patriotism is not looking at our past through rosy glasses and a revisionist history; it is having the courage to examine more closely those areas that are broken, and it is believing in the power of the system to fix them.”

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America–Love It….or Try To Change It

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The Beatles: Get Back
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Hello, you may remember me, the guy who promised to write here more regularly, and then totally wrote less frequently.  I have my reasons, but if you are reading this, you probably don’t really care what they are, so I’ll just move along.

It is amazing to me that we are currently having a national “debate” over whether critics of the current government policies should “go back to where they came from.”  And that this debate was kicked off by a series of racist tweets and comments either cynically, or ignorantly (or both), issued by the President of the United States.  I mean, I shouldn’t be amazed by anything that comes out of the clearly compromised brain of the current holder of the presidency, a man for whom “bottom of the barrel” and “bar cannot be lowered” comments keep coming, as things just get worse and more unhinged.

Speaking of which, the hypocrisy from the party of Trump continues unabated.  The man ran for president on a platform of criticizing the existing government policies, but no one from the Democratic Party suggested that “if he didn’t like it, he should leave the country.”  No one suggested that he “go back to where he came from,” whether that be our common native borough of Queens, his mother’s native Scotland, or his brothel-owning, draft-dodging grandfather’s Germany (from whence grandpa was banished…OK, technically, Bavaria…for the crime of draft dodging, which apparently is genetic).  To the contrary, he was permitted to run his racist, nativist, generally incoherent other than self-aggrandizing and bullying, campaign, and got elected by appealing to the worst instincts of a portion of the electorate and, with Russian assistance, sneaking through a quirk in the Constitution that probably has the Founders spinning wildly in their graves.  At which point, like most authoritarians, he decided that dissent was only OK for him and his ilk, and his opponents were un-American and should go back to where they came from, despite the fact that most of those who were the targets of his ire have roots in this country that long pre-date his.

Not to mention that it is hard to really believe that someone who “hates America” would expend the time, effort and money that it takes to get elected to Congress.  I’d argue that, in fact, they love America so much that they want to be involved in running it.

Of course, he tried to use his rhetorical jujitsu, claiming that it was his critics who were bigots, and that his targets deserved to be silenced because they said things that were un-American, or anti-Semitic, or racist (all things, of course, that he, himself, has done regularly).  And this led to another fight, among his critics, about whether or not it was OK to criticize Rep. Omar, or Ocasio-Cortez, etc., leading to the kind of whataboutism and confusion that helps to obscure the fact that the President of the United States is a bigot.

My take on this whole situation is that the racist tweets, statements and tweets should be called out.  And that individuals have the right–even an obligation–to point to their disagreements with even other Democrats on policy or strategy, but to recognize that they have every right to have their opinions.  I’d argue that it is much, much less dangerous for a Congressperson to have an opinion about Israel that I might disagree with, or a belief that the United States is currently ready to pass sweeping environmental laws, which I think needs to be better explained and executed, than for the President to be attempting to stifle debate.  And to those who argue that publicly differing with fellow Democrats is a “win” for the racist tactics, I disagree.  I think that we can do both, and in criticizing the attempt to demonize dissenters, shine an even harsher light on what he said–it is both racist and authoritarian.  Or, to put it another way, un-American.

As for our featured song, I’m told by the Internet that it was originally more pointed, and was meant as a satire of anti-immigrant policies in Britain back in the day.  The more things change…..

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Happily Out of the Loop

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Dexateens: Outside The Loop
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The main reason to blog about stuff is to get your opinions out in the public, putting aside the simple joy of writing.  Doing so pretty much assumes that you believe that other people care about your opinions.  Over the past few years, here, and at other blogs, I’ve opined about music, television, politics, sports, and other things, but if there is one thing that is clear, it is literally impossible to keep up with all aspects of popular culture.  There’s just too much of it, and too little time.  And that is true, even if your actual job is to write about it, much less if it is a hobby that you do while trying to hold down a regular job and live a life.  There was a time in my life that it was important for me to be ahead of the curve, but that time has long past.  Although I’m still interested in new things, and don’t, for example, only listen to music that I liked in high school.  (For example, our featured song is by Dexateens, a rocking alt-country band featuring future Drive-By Truckers bass player Matt Patton, from a 2006 album co-produced by Trucker Patterson Hood and David Barbe).

Turning to television, it is clear from my year-end roundups, that I watch a lot of TV.  I watch things that are popular, I watch things that are critical favorites, I watch things that are not, and I’ve even caught up on a bunch of older shows that I missed out on for various reasons.

But one thing that I have never watched is a single episode of Game of Thrones.  And over the past few weeks, I am really getting tired of all of the attention that it is getting.  Why don’t I watch it?  I remember when it first came out, there were a bunch of negative reviews, I had never read the books, and it just seemed dopey.  Now, I’m not necessarily turned off by violent period dramas–I’m a big fan of Vikings and Deadwood, for example, or by science fiction–I love The Expanse–but I’ve never liked the sword and sorcery stuff–I never enjoyed Lord of The Rings, in either book or movie form, and it seemed like GoT was going to be like a more violent LotR, with nudity and dragons.  (Brief aside–for various reasons, I never watched some of the other consensus picks for top series from the current Golden Age of TV, including Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Sopranos, and most of the ones that I’d be interested in just have too many seasons to go back and binge, but maybe I’ll hit the lottery some day and have the time.)

Despite the popularity of GoT, for years, it was relatively easy to ignore it–sure, I read enough TV news to recognize the names of some of the characters, and heard about the red wedding, but basically, it was not everywhere.  Now, as the show is in its last week, it has become impossible to ignore–it is all over the Internet, and everyone is making references to the show.  References that go right over my head.   And I get it–if the media is anything, it is willing to pander to popular taste.  But I am looking forward to the last episode, not because I care about how the show ends, but so that I don’t ever have to hear about it anymore.

And while we are at it, I’ve also heard enough about Avengers: Endgame.  I’ve seen a handful of the Marvel movies, but the idea of sitting through a three-hour movie filled with references that I won’t get, and backstory that I don’t know, or don’t remember, seems horrific.  (If you have read my Best TV pieces, you know that I do watch my share of superhero shows, but Endgame just seems like too much).

Now, get off my lawn.

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A Placeholder Post

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Despite the new office, I’ve been writing here more (yay!) (or yay?)  Nevertheless, I did want to do another post where I collect my writing on other sites, since the last one of these.  It is sort of like the blog version of a TV clip show.

At Cover Me, I continue to not write any feature articles, although I’m thinking of one to pitch the team.  But I did contribute to two “Best Covers” collections.  We did Neil Young covers, and I wrote about: 50–Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s live rocking “Like A Hurricane,” 37-Gillian Welch’s mellow “Pocahontas,” 27–Elizabeth Mitchell’s gentle “Little Wing,” 19-Wire Train’s 80’s indie rock “Mr. Soul,” 17–Dala’s pretty “A Man Needs A Maid,” 14-Great Lake Swimmers’ atmospheric “Don’t Cry No Tears,” 10-Cassandra Wilson’s slow, jazzy “Harvest Moon,” and 7–the Pixies surprisingly poppy “Winterlong.”

Then we did Buddy Holly covers, and I wrote about 35–the Flamin’ Groovies fuzzy, scuzzy “That’ll Be The Day,” 24–Steve Hillage’s spacy “Not Fade Away,” 22–Justin Townes Earle’s rocking “Maybe Baby,” 19–The Beatles’ only “official” Holly cover, “Words of Love,” 14–The Bunch (a “supergroup” including Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson and Linda Peters, soon to be Thompson) doing a pretty “Learning The Game,” 12–Hot Tuna’s concise “It’s So Easy,” and a surprise at 9–Canadian singer Serena Ryder’s New Orleans influenced “It Doesn’t Matter Any More.”  Next up, Radiohead, a band that I don’t really like, so I’m opting out.

Star Maker Machine continues to be where I post most often.  This year, our holiday theme was “Unsainted Nicks,” and I contributed a piece about Nick Lowe’s “Christmas At The Airport.”  I was prolific in responding to the annual In Memoriam theme, writing about Roy Hargrove, Russ Solomon (the founder of Tower Records), Marty Balin and Yvonne Staples and Edwin Hawkins.

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Why Do (Almost) All Of My Teams Disappoint?

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Bob Mould: Disappointed
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For some reason, I am a fan of sports teams that almost always disappoint.  And yet, I keep rooting for them, hoping that this will be their (and my) year.  What did I do to deserve this fate? And why did I pass it down to my son? When pressed, I usually argue that your fan loyalties are like your family–you are stuck with them, for better or worse.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if this curse has been passed down patrilineally in my family.  To the best of my knowledge, my grandfather Harry Becker was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan (I’ve never heard that he rooted for any other teams in any other sport).  Harry emigrated to Brooklyn in 1909 from England when he was about 6 (there’s no record of whether he had a favorite football team back in London,although based on the neighborhood he lived in, West Ham would be a good guess). The Dodgers (or the Superbas/Robins, as they were called during various points early on in Harry’s fandom) were a notoriously bad team for much of their history.   From 1910-1940 (when my father was 3), the Brooklyn franchise lost the World Series twice, in 1916 and 1920, but for most of the rest of that period were usually mired in what was called the “second division”–the bottom half of the 8 team National League.  In fact, as Wikipedia notes, “the teams of the late 1920s were often fondly referred to as the ‘Daffiness Boys’ for their distracted, error-ridden style of play.”  And, of course, after that, they came be be called the “Bums.”  Sort of an early version of “LOLMets.”

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English Needs More Words

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R.E.M.: So. Central Rain
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How many words does English have?  Depending on your source, you get different numbers, so let’s just go with “lots.”  Yet, despite this, there are some situations that call for new words.

A few years back, it dawned on me that there’s no English word to describe your relationship with your child’s in-laws.  I mentioned that in passing in this piece, noting that both Yiddish and Spanish (languages that I have a smidgen or less of knowledge about) have such a word.  Before I started writing this, I found this piece from Slate that discusses that same thing, better, and a few other areas where English is deficient.  So, read that–after finishing this, of course.

Moving on.

Let’s say you are sitting down with a friend, having coffee.  The conversation gets animated, and you knock over your coffee cup, drenching your friend’s shirt with scalding brown liquid.  Of course, while grabbing napkins, you say to your friend, “I’m sorry.”  And your friend, while really pissed off, is likely to respond,”That’s OK,” or something like that.  You respond, “Yeah, I’ve really been out of it since my father died.”  And your friend replies, “Oh, I didn’t know.  I’m sorry.”  Your response is likely to be something like, “Thanks, it’s not your fault.”  Which is probably true.

My point is that we need a different word to mean “Sorry, I did a stupid thing and am seeking forgiveness,” or what I’ll call an “apologetic sorry,” as opposed to “I’m sorry that something bad happened to you, without any fault on my part,” or what I’ll call a “sympathetic sorry.”

To a few friends and family members, I floated this thought–keep using “sorry” for the apologetic situation, and use my new word, “snorry” for the sympathetic version.

What do you think? Can we make it go viral?

Probably not.  Shakespeare is credited with creating more than 1700 English words.  But if there is one thing clear about my writing, I’m no Shakespeare.

Can you think of any other situations where the English language lacks a certain je ne sais quoi?  Does that give you schadenfreude? We could discuss it over hors d’oeuvres.  Or is creating new words just so much chutzpah?

Our featured song is “So. Central Rain,” by R.E.M.  If you don’t know why, I’m snorry.

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AOG Linguistic Kardashian Award 2

Back in April, 2016, before our country’s antiquated Electoral College, Russian interference, misogyny, terrible reporting, and some sort of mass insanity resulted in the election to the Presidency of a buffoonish demagogue who surrounded himself with a crew of deplorable and corrupt fixers, scam artists, sycophants, reality stars, future jailbirds, and unqualified family members that would be laughed at in the worst banana republic, I bestowed the first AOG Linguistic Kardashian Award for overexposure to “firestorm.”  You can read it here.

Since then, I feel the need to bestow another award to “the base.”  I don’t know when this word became in vogue, but now, all you hear about are politicians playing to their base.  Wikipedia defines “Base” as:

In politics, the term base refers to a group of voters who almost always support a single party’s candidates for elected office. Base voters are very unlikely to vote for the candidate of an opposing party, regardless of the specific views each candidate holds. In the United States, this is typically because high-level candidates must hold the same stances on key issues as a party’s base in order to gain the party’s nomination and thus be guaranteed ballot access. In the case of legislative elections, base voters often prefer to support their party’s candidate against an otherwise appealing opponent in order to strengthen their party’s chances of gaining a simple majority; typically the gateway to overarching power in a legislature.

This interesting column from Charles Houmans, the politics editor for The New York Times Magazine, from 2017 notes:

A political party’s base, for much of the 20th century, usually came with an indefinite article attached: a base, rather than the base. This was a straightforward reflection of how parties operated, as sometimes lumpy and uneasy coalitions of disparate interests.

Houmans goes on to describe how this changed:

In 1990, when Bush proposed a tax-reform package that included modest increases in some brackets, House Republicans revolted, led by an ambitious Georgia congressman named Newt Gingrich. “It is a signal,” he told The Washington Post, “that the base of the Republican Party opposes raising taxes and that the package had better be awfully good.” The base had, in Gingrich’s formulation, become something new: not a coalition to be expanded but a force to be propitiated or crossed at Bush’s peril. It was not there to be molded by politicians like Jack Kemp. It was there to give orders to them, through mediums like Gingrich — whose personal policy hobbyhorses, it just so happened, matched the base’s.

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