Category Archives: REM

How the Rugged Individual Myth Distorts the Power of Collaboration in Art

If you want to understand the Taylor Swift v. Damon Albarn public dispute, I suggest exploring the history of super hero comics in the U.S.

I know that may seem odd, but from the wonderful novel by Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, to the infamous fights over who created what at Marvel (Stan Lee v. Jack Kirby and many, many others), to the rising awareness the the Marvel Cinematic Universe is generating huge amounts of wealth on the backs of ignored and marginalized creators, we have ample evidence that identifying single creators of complex art is much more difficult than people tend to imagine.

While there is no question that Albarn was factually wrong in his claim that Swift doesn’t write her songs, and glaringly inept in his sweeping discounting of the value of co-writing, I think the debate offers an excellent opportunity to interrogate how people often use the word “write” to mean “create,” and how the rugged individual myth (or better framed as a lie or delusion) distorts the power and reality of collaboration in almost all creative acts.

While rewatching some of the Netflix series based on Marvel characters, I noticed, for example, four creators identified for Luke Cage—Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, Roy Thomas, and John Romita Sr. This list identifies both writers and artists as creators, highlighting the essential problem that has existed in the super hero comic book business since the beginning.

Essentially, the comic book industry over the past century is an embarrassing story of denying creative contributions and resisting the essential nature of collaboration. Ironically, Marvel infamously experienced a crisis in the 1990s because a new wave of celebrity artists/creators began to assert their roles in creating comic books.

Throughout pop culture, what is created and consumed by audiences and who actually creates the product are overwhelmingly about collaboration—not only comic books (typically created by scripters/writers; pencil, ink, and color artists; and letterers) but TV series and films, and of course, pop music.

In a ham-fisted way, Albarn is speaking from and into an idealized view of the rugged individual as Artist.

The silly part of all this, of course, is that everyone knows the pop music industry is necessarily collaborative. In my own music fandom, for example, I learned to appreciate groups and solo acts that viewed pop music as both popular and art—notably my fandom of R.E.M., CAKE, Ben Folds (and Ben Folds Five), and The National.

And while there is a sort of wonderment to believing that performers such as Prince and Ben Folds created and performed entire albums “on their own,” and to watching Folds perform solo in live concerts, the truth is that nothing is really created in a complete vacuum of rugged individualism.

During the 1980s and 1990s when the disaster was brewing at Marvel, Athens, GA-based R.E.M. was rising to prominence and made the only right decision a musical group could make—assigned equal credit for all song to all four founding members of the band—Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe. For many years, R.E.M. also did not include lyrics with their album releases to maintain (some claimed) a focus on the whole product.

I don’t see much value in teasing out the Swift/Albarn back-and-forth itself because, frankly, Albarn’s comments were daft and even his apology is lacking. Swift is the creator of her catalogue; she, like all artists, did not do that alone, but the work is still unequivocally hers even if and when it isn’t only hers.

But Albarn’s original comments are worth unpacking in terms his use of “writes.”

Since I am a pop music fan, I have always noticed a jumbled overlap of fans who use “writes” to mean lyrics and fans who use “writes” to mean music (and then subgroups of different instruments, song parts, etc.).

Whether it is super hero comics, pop music, or film/TV shows, people are apt to look for ways to identify who deserves the real credit for “writing” a product.

That urge, I think, is driven by the rugged individual myth that pervades U.S. culture, and that ultimately distorts the power and importance of collaboration.

Michael Stipe, formerly of R.E.M., has recently begun working more seriously on solo music and has openly acknowledged his role as mostly the lyricist for R.E.M. and thus needing others to help him (re)learn how to write music as well.

Folds rose to fame with his group, Ben Folds Five, but his transition to a solo career was quite different since Folds worked as a writer of lyrics and music in the band [1].

And if we circle back to Swift, she is a powerful example of creative ownership since she has begun to reclaim her catalogue, including famously working with Aaron Dessner (of The National) to critical success (Dessner also defended Swift against Albarn).

Were the original songs under a different producer Swift’s? Are the new versions Swift’s? And is her “ownership” or “writing” diminished by collaboration?

It seems beyond silly (and mostly sexist) to challenge Swift as a writer/creator of her work, and it also seems careless not to acknowledge that her collaborators do matter; the collaboration is an important element of creativity that is undervalued in American culture (as a subset of the larger sexism driving who is allowed to be individually great).

I think we should take much more time to acknowledge and celebrate collaboration, assuming it is nested there in virtually all creative acts and products; “no [hu]man is an island,” and all that.

But we should also take better care of how we talk about creativity; in many cases, we should prefer “creates” instead of “writes” because art/products often include initial ideas, more detailed fleshing out into products, and the performances of many people with gifts and talents.

Especially with pop music, we should also acknowledge that part of creativity is performance; Swift is an artists and a performer (and as many people have pointed out, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, etc., can be described as entertainers more so than artists in terms of their lack of creating/writing songs by comparison).

The Swift/Albarn clash is a great deal of mansplaining rubbish; Albarn simply shouldn’t have made those comments. But it is also a powerful message about the distorted view of creativity and art in the U.S. because of our rugged individual myth-delusion grounded in a pervasive sexism.


[1] Folds’s “One Down” has great lines about the role of the pop music song writer:

Ben, just make up junk
And turn it in
But i could never could quite bring myself
To write a bunch of shit
I don’t like wasting time
On music that won’t make me proud
But now I’ve found a reason
To sit right down and shit some out

“One Down,” Ben Folds

“What a sad parade”: New Adventures in Hi-Fi after 25 Years

Like “Ignoreland” (an often under-appreciated, if not ignored, track from R.E.M.’s 1992 album, Automatic for the People), “New Test Leper” offers a powerful and disturbing commentary on the state of the U.S. in 2021, a country still trying to stay afloat in the wake of the Republican Party revealing its true self under the leadership of Donald Trump.

The 25th anniversary release of New Adventures in Hi-Fi provides fans new and old an opportunity to reconsider one of the band’s finest albums (I am leaning toward anointing NAIHF as its finest album).

Cover art for New Test Leper by R.E.M.

When the album was first released, I was drawn to several songs—”New Test Leper,” “Undertow,” “Leave,” “Be Mine,” and “Electrolite.” In fact, I have long included “Electrolite” among my favorite songs by R.E.M., lyrically as well as the performance of the song.

After the anniversary edition was announced, songs were slowly released in remastered and alternative version, including two of my favorites, “Leave” and “Be Mine.”

But what has struck me deepest is returning to “New Test Leper,” a narrative song that sits firmly in the talk-show era of the 1990s while also serving as not just a warning about but a prediction of the country the U.S. was becoming and now has become.

Michael Stipe, as the primary lyricist, has written a number of songs about gender and sexuality, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, his own sexuality was often the focus of rumor and public debate (situations Stipe brushed off as not so provocative by noting he often performed in make up and skirts).

“New Test Leper” certainly represents Stipe’s deep awareness of Otherness, but the song also focuses on the consequences of being othered in the context of American religiosity and the lurid nature of sensationalistic talk shows of the late twentieth century (which morphed into equally lurid so-called reality TV).

The opening stanza establishes the narrative situation, the talk show, and the tension between religiosity (the false and often hypocritical realities of Christians) and the non-religious speaker who, ironically, quotes Jesus (a recurring move by notable humanist author Kurt Vonnegut):

I can’t say that I love Jesus
That would be a hollow claim
He did make some observations
And I’m quoting them today
“Judge not, lest ye be judged”
What a beautiful refrain
The studio audience disagrees
Have his lambs all gone astray?

“New Test Leper”

The reason the speaker is othered and on display remains ambiguous, a powerful decision by Stipe that allows the song to speak to the larger horrors of being judged by social norms, such as the superficial Christianity of the U.S. The speaker could be gay, trans, a racial minority, etc.

Two images of the song reinforce the negative consequences of being outside cultural norms: first, the allusion to David Lynch’s Elephant Man, “‘I am not an animal,'” and second, the haunting refrain as allusion to Biblical Jesus as the defender of outcasts, “Call me a leper.”

This public confrontation between the speaker and audience, made more tense by the Biblical and pop culture allusions, leaves the speaker deflated and questioning their efforts to be heard against the din of public opinion:

“You are lost and disillusioned”
What an awful thing to say
I know this show doesn’t flatter
It means nothing to me
I thought I might help them understand
What an ugly thing to see

“New Test Leper”

It is, however, the final verse that speaks to where the U.S. has found itself culturally and politically. While the song was released during the Clinton era, the U.S. was still under the weight of the Reagan/Bush years, a political movement that cemented the marriage of Christian conservatives to the Republican Party (see Buccola’s brilliant analysis of the debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, which outlines how that marriage developed decades before the Reagan revolution and the rise of the Moral Majority).

The final verse answers the question from the first verse, “Have his lambs all gone astray?”:

When I tried to tell my story
They cut me off to take a break
I sat silent five commercials
I had nothing left to say
The talk show host was index-carded
All organized and blank
The other guests were scared and hardened
What a sad parade
What a sad parade

“New Test Leper”

Yes, we must admit, Christian conservatives have strayed so far from Jesus as to be nearly unrecognizable as the ambassadors of kindness the words ascribed to Jesus implore over and over, and those of us who recognize that are left shaking our heads and concluding, “What a sad parade.”

In 2021, we are faced with a disturbing 30-40% of Americans just like the imagined studio audience of this song, and Fox News along with several podcasts attracting millions of listeners are driven by “talk show host[s]…index carded/All organized and blank” (from Tucker Carlson to Joe Rogan).

Imagine the speaker as a teacher accused of teaching Critical Race Theory and the audience filled with conservatives shouting faux outrage over something they know nothing about—except we do not have to imagine.

Art often has the capacity to step back and criticize the Now of the creation; exceptional art also serves as warnings, even predictions—although by the time we realize that, we failed to heed the warning and may be too late.

I feel resigned and deflated, like the speaker in “New Test Leper,” and it has become harder and harder to cling to Vonnegut’s belief if humans would just listen to Jesus (and not Christianity or the church) we could save humanity:

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.

“Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!

“Cold Turkey”

What a sad parade.

Aftermath

But the stars collide
They’re beautiful and much maligned
In a universe where you see the worst
And it’s up to you to fix it

“Aftermath,” R.E.M.

I am not in Kansas…
Move back home with mom and dad…
My bedroom is a stranger’s gun room…
I can’t go back there anymore

“Not in Kansas,” The National

Dorothy’s journey in The Wizard of Oz was a quest and a mantra—”There’s no place like home”—but Thomas Wolfe has warned us otherwise, You Can’t Go Home Again.

I have been thinking a great deal about nostalgia, the urge to return to something from before, something assumed to be better and normal. The Covid-19 pandemic has coincided with my oldest nephew finally having the time needed to scan hundreds of family photos gathered after the deaths of my parents over a six-month period a couple years ago.

The images are haunting and fill me with nearly overwhelming melancholia. The newest and last batch of scans forced me to consider both the allure of back then and if any moment is really better; is there ever really such a thing as the good old days?

These photographs span decades and generations; many of the oldest black-and-white photos are faded, blurred, but they capture people mostly unsure of how to be while being photographed. There is an awkwardness that puts up masks to whether or not these days were more than the old days, but also “good.”

And family photographs are rich with babies and children, especially babies on people’s laps. There are two in the newest batch that I can’t quite fully process, babies on laps—one of my mother and me, obscured by finger prints, and another of my oldest nephew sitting on my mother’s lap, her beside my father in an eerily red-hued picture from 1983:

 

There are about 20-plus years between these images of my mother, and I am turned inside out by my parents’ faces, both looking away and appearing to be quite distant from the moment then in the early 1980s, there with the beginning of a life that will always be inextricably intertwined with theirs.

My oldest nephew, who we call Tommy on our side of the family, carried a tremendous bulk of the responsibility as my parents’ health declined and once they died. His earnest duty to them has persisted as he has scanned these hundreds of photos, I assume, in one effort to hold onto a home that we shared at different times.

I look at these images and feel like Dorothy:

Well, I, I think that it, that it wasn’t enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. And it’s that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with. Is that right?

But I also know this to be misguided nostalgia—that you can’t go home again.

The urge to go back to seemingly better times is a powerful political message, however, one resonating in a different way in 2020 during a pandemic that has erased normal from most of our days and nights.

Political messages about reclaiming the good old days has had mixed results.

In 1996, Bill Clinton levered the future over the past:

“The real choice is about whether we will build a bridge to the future or a bridge to the past; about whether we believe our best days are ahead or behind us; about whether we want a country of people working together, or one where you’re on your own,” Clinton said.

But Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump have shared political success by taking the opposite stance:

“We ran on a theme: ‘Make America Great Again.’ And a lot of people are saying that may have been the greatest theme ever in politics. Ronald Reagan had a small thing called ‘Let’s Make America Great.’ That was good,” Trump said earlier in the evening. “I don’t like it as much. And he sure as hell didn’t use it as much.”

Those of us leery of the good old days often ask people to specifically identify when and what was “great” in the past, specifying the when but also acknowledging how it was “great” and for whom.

At whose expense is anyone’s happiness?

Bob Dole seems to have lost due to his failure to recognize that a nostalgia for a 1950s U.S. ignored that mid-twentieth century America was often anything except great for large populations of people not like him.

However, even as 2020 is a presidential election year, throughout the world, all of us are now confronted with wanting to return to normal, desiring through a haze of nostalgia to go back to the time before the pandemic.

I have been struck by how unfamiliar now images of crowds seem to me—major sporting events, music concerts.

I am reminded of going with friends to see The National in an outdoor venue in Pittsburg just after the Las Vegas mass shooting. It was a challenging and disorienting experience, but many of us simply attended the event to cling in part to something we considered normal.

It seems entirely reasonable in our current medical crisis to want things as they were before the pandemic. But it is also completely irrational to want to return to the world that brought us to this shut down.

Thinking everything was better in the past is not just nostalgic, but negligent.

Before the pandemic, people across the U.S. lacked health care and stable well-paying jobs. Those facts increased the crisis.

I have been looking through hundreds of photographs and missing the people and the times; it is a powerful thing to want to go home again.

But we can’t go home, we will never go back to normal.

In the aftermath of crisis, in fact, the greatest honor we can pay to our past is to move forward, better people and seeking the very best of Maggie Smith’s final lines to “Good Bones”: “This place could be beautiful,/right? You could make this place beautiful.”


Dog in the Sink

She is five or six years old, my daughter, sitting in the backseat and requesting “Dog in the Sink” from the R.E.M. mix-tape I made her.

Mishearing the line “dogging the scene,” she renamed “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” as she did several songs, including another favorite “That’s great it starts with an earthquake birds and snakes and aeroplanes.”

We spent a great deal of time in the car together. To and from school. To and from soccer practice. To and from soccer matches and tournaments.

Typically, my daughter would ask me to play songs, often R.E.M. since that is what I was listening to almost all the time, and to sing along while she watched me singing in the rearview mirror. Once she had the lyrics, she would tell me to stop, and she would then sing.

By the time she was 10 or so, she could sing all of “Its the End of the World as We Know It (And  feel Fine)”—much to the amazement of family and friends.

R.E.M. is re-releasing Monster, a 25th anniversary edition, so “Kenneth” has been on a loop in my head for several days.

Monster 25th Anniversary - Expanded 2-CD Set - R.E.M.
REMhq

The song permanently blurs with life with my daughter as a child, her asking about the end of “Kenneth” when “I never understood the frequency” becomes the closing “I never understood, don’t fuck with me.”

As she grew up, of course, she understood more and more of the lyrics, including the profanity. I never shielded her from the music I listened to so our adventure with music morphed a bit from those mostly innocent early days.

Another album just passing its 23rd anniversary is CAKE’s Fashion Nugget. My daughter was fascinated by “Nugget” as an early teen; it is profane and in your face.

When she would climb into the car with some of her soccer teammates, as we drove to lunch between matches, she would ask me to play “that song,” and I would survey the friends—”Your parents are ok with this?”—and we’d listen to “Nugget,” her face beaming.

I have several of these song moments permanently imprinted in my memory—my daughter singing “O, my, my, O, tell yea” unaware of “hell” as an option while singing along to Tom Petty, for example.

But as “Kenneth” has been on a permanent loop in my mind, I have realized that I struggle to recreate in those memories my daughter sitting in the back seat. I have this vague awareness of that, but I often lose her face and child self behind the more immediate image of my granddaughter, who I see often and spend a good deal of time interacting with in her carseat.

I will never get back “Dog in the Sink,” my daughter at 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 …

I have lost forever a world of mixtapes and spending every waking moment in the service of a child.

“Kenneth” on a loop in my mind makes me very happy and deeply sad all at once.

I also will never again have a new R.E.M. album. I have, in fact, just redecorated my office, replacing some of the R.E.M. posters with The National—a band I found through R.E.M.

No photo description available.

I have always been haunted by Emily in Our Town, after her death realizing that we can’t and don’t look at anything hard enough in the moment.

“The world is too much with us,” Wordsworth warns; we are too busy living to really appreciate the moment.

My daughter used to come down stairs and repeatedly run and jump on me on the couch. She was rambunctious and laughing. But I was too often easily exhausted by that.

It deserved more. It deserved the same care and attention as those times we spent in the car, me playing songs she requested and her eventually telling me to stop singing so she could.

I was too easily distracted in my 30s and 40s: “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”; squandering, I would add.

I am better now in some ways. I will sit on the floor with my grandchildren, even when it is exhausting and even when I know it will last only a moment before they are off to something else.

I have sat hours quite still with each of those grandchildren in my lap, sleeping or watching TV or their iPad. I used to joke I was my granddaughter’s recliner.

It is a pose I am happy to hold—now.

We carry always with us these things we lose, these things we cannot hold onto no matter how deeply we want to make the world, time stand still.

It is a bit overwhelming to realize I have lost those images of my daughter as a child, her voice even, and her mannerisms and personality. All of that morphing into my granddaughter.

When I confuse the names of my daughter and granddaughter it may be the most honest moments of my life. They have piled up inside me in a way that I cannot untangle, a way that I would never want to untangle because I would be afraid of completely unraveling it all. Losing again what I have lost already.

“Papa, look!” my granddaughter demands as I am driving; I struggle to make her happy, but I have to explain I can’t turn around while driving.

I try to use the rearview mirror, but my granddaughter will have none of that. She wants my full attention, not some indirect reflection.

The rearview mirror was enough for my daughter.

It’s a shame mirrors reflect only the moment. It’s a shame we often don’t enjoy those moments.

What Does This Poem Mean?: On the Politics of Core Knowledge and Reading Instruction

While I am skeptical of nostalgia, the mostly vapid good-old-days approach to anything, I want to return to my high school teaching years, mostly pre-Internet and smart phone years throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

One of the best parts of teaching English was forming bonds with students over popular music. Gradually, in fact, my entire poetry unit was grounded in the music of R.E.M., the alternative group based in Athens, GA.

R.E.M. achieved immediate critical success with their first album, Murmur, and then were college rock stars throughout the 1980s, with popular stardom coming more than a decade after they formed.

What made R.E.M. particularly fascinating for my students and me was that they typically did not release the lyrics for their earliest albums, and thus, we would spend hours listening and trying to figure out just what Michael Stipe was saying. In fact, some early jabs at R.E.M. referred to Murmur as Mumbles since Stipe had a signature way of being terribly unclear.

I can still recall wrestling with “You Are the Everything”—students puzzled by “eviscerate” and all of us thrown by “With your teeth in your mouth.”

The beauty of all this for me as a teacher of poetry was that we had to work diligently first on the what, the literal, of the lyrics before we could begin trying to tackle meaning.

Too often, I found, students felt compelled (a really flawed lesson learning in school) to jump immediately to “this song/poem means” without taking any care to read the poem literally first.

Ultimately, investigating poetry was yet more efforts at learning to read, a behavior that is always in a state of emerging (despite the technocratic view that we can reach proficiency).

These memories came to me when I read Carol Black’s excellent Twitter thread:

Black carefully and powerfully unpacks and discredits the E.D. Hirsch Core Knowledge argument about reading that is compelling to those so-called experts outside of literacy and especially to the media, politicians, and textbook publishers.

As Black details, the argument that some core or essential knowledge exists in an objective apolitical way falls apart once you unpack how facts are presented and, more importantly, who determines what knowledge matters.

A disturbing example of Black’s critique immediately surfaced, also on Twitter:

This example of whitewashing slavery further exposes that no knowledge is value neutral and that the details of knowledge are far less important than confronting the authority behind what knowledge counts as fact or true.

So let me return to my students and me trying to decipher Stipe’s mumbling so that we could start to imagine what those wonderful songs meant.

The essential flaw of Core Knowledge arguments is that it promotes the passive acquisition of knowledge (what Paulo Freire criticized as the “banking concept” of teaching and learning) instead of the interrogation of knowledge, the domain of critical literacy.

Yes, we listened to the songs over and over so that we could as a community create the text, and we also scoured the music press for any and everything we could find from the band members about those lyrics, especially anything Stipe might reveal.

And we also built knowledge about the band and Stipe himself to provide context for those interpretations. Once Peter Buck said his favorite line from Monster was “Oh, my kiss breath turpentine,” explaining that it didn’t mean anything, but sounded great.

In other words, lyrics, as Stipe also explained at some point, were a way for Stipe’s voice to be another instrument in the song, not necessarily always about coherent meaning in the traditional use of text.

We were not acquiring knowledge, but interrogating an audio text in an effort to discover and uncover meaning, even as that meaning was tentative.

Recently, Bertis Downs, long-time lawyer for R.E.M., posted “Photograph” to social media, where I listened again and read along to the lyrics:

Always a favorite song of mine, including the beautiful accompaniment of Natalie Merchant, I was struck this time by the lines: “Was she willing when she sat/And posed a pretty photograph.” The “willing” speaks to the #MeToo era in a way I had not noticed many years ago.

As well, this song reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s “This Is a Photograph of Me,” which I taught for many years in A.P. Literature.

As an entry point to think deeply about consent, the song has new meaning, a meaning that works beyond the text and resonates because of a changing time and new social awareness.

All text meaning is political, communal, and tentative—not a fixed or objective truth.

And then, Atwood’s poem always posed tremendous challenges for students. In short, the ambiguity of the poem was an ideal way to help students learn to ask questions as a pursuit of meaning, instead of looking for the meaning.

Other than being in lines and stanzas, the poem achieves its poetic form without many of the traditional elements students expect (rhyme, for example). Further, the poem’s second section in parenthesis asks readers to consider the implications of punctuation as that contributes to meaning.

“(The photograph was taken/ the day after I drowned” opens that section and immediately challenges the reader with the literal problem since the photograph appears to be of the lake: “I am in the lake, in the center/ of the picture, just under the surface.”

Moving from R.E.M.’s song to Atwood’s poem and then, for example, adding Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” builds for students a body of problematic texts that warrants investigation, and not simple knowledge acquisition.

These three texts certainly are better read when the reader is more knowledgeable, but let’s not misread “knowledgeable.”

To be well read, in fact, is having had many experiences interrogating text and knowledge which is also the process of acquiring knowledge.

The more R.E.M. I listened to, the better I read those songs. The more Atwood I read, the more I understood Atwood (her word play, her misdirection).

What does this poem mean?—this becomes a journey and not a destination, an interrogation, not a proclamation.

Black’s dismantling the Core Knowledge propaganda about learning to read, then, pulls back the curtain on how Core Knowledge advocates are themselves serving an unspoken politics by taking on a faux veneer of apolitical essential knowledge.

Unintended I am sure, Atwood’s poem itself speaks to this as well:

the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
eventually
you will be able to see me.)

Let us invite our students to “look long enough,” beyond the “distortion,” so that they will “be able to see.”

“I’m not sure all these people understand”

It’s only been four days since the official concession—the end of Daylight Savings Time (DST) that shifts the world backward an hour, that throws up our collective hands to the cosmic reality that daylight is contracting around us.

Sure, time is arbitrary, and today’s 5 o’clock being yesterday’s 6 o’clock means little except in the bureaucracy of it all. But for some of us, this is catastrophic and overwhelming.

As I have recently written, I am equal parts unhappy and sad—and it is significantly connected to the time change, the waning daylight, and the coincidental multiple days of clouds, rain, and chillier temperatures.

Anxiety, depression, introversion—these I can keep at bay a bit better when the sun is warm and still just above the horizon at 8 and 9 pm. By November and the godawful month of December, however, I am reduced to this—equal parts unhappy and sad.

I am moving closer to the one-year anniversary of an accident also, one that has qualitatively changed my life, and I fear, somehow triggered a frailty in me that lingers, that is permanently who I am.

I am now living, it seems, in the midst of that life I have been fearing and anticipating, a life I have dreaded and that most people call “old age.”

And some of it is simply the accumulation of life—the weight of family and obligations at polar ends of my existence, from an infirm mother to grandchildren as well as everyone in between. To be poetic and to paraphrase, The world is too much with me; late and soon.

The 25th anniversary release of R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People haunts me now, especially “Nightswimming”:

You, I thought I knew you
You I cannot judge
You, I thought you knew me
This one laughing quietly underneath my breath

More personal, I think, and ultimately more beautiful, “Nighhtswimming” wades into familiar ground, confessing similar pain to the personae witnessed in “That’s me in the corner/That’s me in the spotlight/Losing my religion.”

We who are anxious and introverted have a refrain:

I’d rather walk all the way home right now than to spend one more second in this place
I’m exactly like you Valentine, just come outside and leave with me

As I watched the extended video for “Nightswimming,” I had to resist crying as I sat in my office; this is what we do, we who feel ourselves and the world around us too deeply, too vividly.

I am doing the best I can between how I feel and knowing that the world is watching me.

So daylight contracts toward the Winter Solstice, and Stipe’s voice echoes in my mind: “I’m not sure all these people understand.”


“Ignoreland” Realized: Trumplandia 2017

Bertis Downs, lawyer and everything-man for Athens-based group R.E.M., asked on social media what Automatic for the People song is most under-appreciated.

As this album approaches its 25-year anniversary—and in the weakening wake of the band calling it a day—we may be hard pressed to argue that any song on that collection is more relevant than “Ignoreland.”

The career of R.E.M. has some relatively clear eras—the independent phase spanning the 1980s, the popular phase associated with the Warner Brothers contract and the 1990s, and then the post-Bill Berry R.E.M.

It seems fair to argue that Automatic represents what makes R.E.M. an elite example of how a group can achieve significant popularity while maintaining artistic independence and credibility. In short, this is a beautiful album that may in fact have a collection of songs that are all under-appreciated.

Throughout their independent years as playing so-called college alternative rock, R.E.M. developed a reputation as a political band; Michael Stipe’s lyrics unpacked as such, even when they remained elliptical and more evocative than declarative, and then band mates themselves politically vocal and active beyond their music.

R.E.M. fandom seems to fall along the three eras above, with some clinging to the independent 1980s band but balking at popular R.E.M. and then abandoning post-Berry R.E.M. However, “Ignoreland” in many ways is a powerful link between the independent and popular phases.

From 1987, Document lays the groundwork for “Ignoreland” with “Exhuming McCarthy,” pop-song catchy and politically scathing. A compact distant cousin to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, “Exhuming McCarthy” takes aim at the Reagan administration as a manifestation of all-that-is-wrong with U.S. corporate-capitalism as well as the need to keep the public afraid of creeping threats such as the 1950s Red Scare echoed in Reagan’s “Tear down this wall.”

It is damned hard to find better pop-culture political literature than “Look who bought the myth/ By Jingo, buy America.”

The U.S. did just that for twelve years—eight of Reagan and then four more with George H. W. Bush, who appears in “Ignoreland” with equally incisive lyrics: “How to walk in dignity with throw-up on your shoes.”

A great bittersweet reality of my life is that I no longer can anticipate a new R.E.M. album, no longer feel that rush of the first listen to unpack what I knew would be something that would make me a different person, a happier person.

I recall that first listen to Automatic and how I marveled at “Ignoreland”—what felt to me as a writer, a teacher, and a part of the political Left to be a perfect metaphor for the U.S.

The politics of ignoring reality—tremendous and grinding inequity—in the glare of rhetoric about the American Dream captured in e.e. cummings’s “‘next to of course american i.”

As in “Exhuming McCarthy,” cummings confronts U.S. jingoism—”by jingo by gee by gosh by gum”—linking the paradox of extremely inward-gazing nationalism and the simultaneous failure of the American character unmasked by James Baldwin: “This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us.”

“Ignoreland” begins causticly and rings as if written in recent months: “These bastards stole their power from the victims of the Us v. Them years.”

The rise of Reagan/Bush is detailed twenty-five years ago by exposing divisive politics, sword rattling, and hollow promises of trickle-down economics. But “Ignoreland” also warns about the failure of media, predating significantly the recent hand wringing about fake news: “The information nation took their clues from all the sound-bite gluttons/ Nineteen eighty, eighty-four, eighty-eight, ninety-two too, too.”

The U.S. as a media-centric people who are paradoxically, again, un-/misinformed—Stipe’s catalogue also triggers George Orwell’s 1984, a work recently regaining popularity along with other works of dystopian science fiction because Orwell focused on how often those who control language control everything:

TV tells a million lies
The paper’s terrified to report
Anything that isn’t handed on a presidential spoon

If we truly want to know how we have arrived here, what I have christened Trumplandia, the bread crumbs of that decline can be followed through “Exhuming McCarthy” and “Ignoreland” to finding ourselves in the witch’s cauldron.

Trumplandia is a people willingly filing into what was sold as a Jacuzzi, only to find ourselves the meat of a meal to feed the 1%.

To ignore—this must not be ignored now. It is an act of will, a decision.

I argued during the presidential election of 2016 that voters had to compromise their morals to vote for Hillary Clinton, but to vote Trump was a complete abandoning of any moral grounding.

To vote Trump is the ultimate act of ignoring found in the majority of white women voting for a misogynist, in the religious Right voting for a serial adulterer, and in the media happily skipping along hand-in-hand with a pathological liar.

Twenty-five years ago, “Ignoreland” captured the toxic mix of political anger and political resignation:

If they weren’t there we would have created them
Maybe, it’s true
But I’m resentful all the same
Someone’s got to take the blame

Trump ascending and fabricating an administration of billionaires, “Ignoreland” realized because we chose the road of least resistance—we created them.


“Out of Time” in Post-Truth Trumplandia

We’ve been through fake-a-breakdown
Self-hurt, plastics, collections
Self-help, self-pain
EST, psychics, fuck all

“Country Feedback,” R.E.M.

Maybe this is the stuff of Legend, or false memory—or that the Russians can hack even that—but it seems R.E.M. kept a running list of possible album titles as they recorded, a practice often including daring titles left to linger with the specter of a very unlike-R.E.M. outcome.

For the now 25-year-old Out of Time, that title, I recall, came from a final statement on that board—the band was out of time for submitting the recordings and title.

That the album most associated with R.E.M. and their delayed rise to pop culture fame, fueled as well by their becoming MTV darlings, has turned 25 in the year of electing Trump seems cruelly painful, and whether or not my recollection about how the album was named is factual has become irrelevant in post-truth Trumplandia.

Throughout the 1980s, R.E.M. was immediately loved by Rolling Stone and the so-called college radio crowd, and they were a touring alternative rock success—a reality that had much to do with fans and music critics recognizing that within the realm of popular music, R.E.M. took their craft seriously and were uniquely adept at that craft.

By the time the band angered those 1980s alternative fans by signing a huge record contract with Warner Brothers, and then (gasp) achieved fame with “Losing My Religion,” R.E.M. had become known as both a highly ethical band (making money but not selling out their artistic autonomy) and a political band; neither seemed to hurt the band in ways that other performers could not avoid (think many years later the fate of the Dixie Chicks).

Still now after the band has called it a day, after their fame dwindled into petty sniping at the albums produced after Bill Berry retired (Up, Reveal and Around the Sun unfairly slighted by critics and fans), after the inevitable rush to reconsider the enduring excellence once R.E.M. no longer was a practicing band—it is the politics of R.E.M. that fascinates me, from the more overtly political “Orange Crush” and “Ignoreland” to the ambiguously political “Fall on Me” or intimacy politics of “Tongue.”

Yes, Out of Time soared into the wider national and international consciousness with “Losing My Religion” as the least likely of hits (dare we say radio hit in the context of the album’s first song and the fact that this world is now a distant memory?) and an iconic tour-de-force in music videos.

But appreciating an album also requires taking the album as a whole:

Out of Time
01. Radio Song
02. Losing My Religion
03. Low
04. Near Wild Heaven
05. Endgame
06. Shiny Happy People
07. Belong
08. Half A World Away
09. Texarkana
10. Country Feedback
11. Me In Honey

The paradox of R.E.M., for me, is that the popularity of the band includes “Losing My Religion” and the odd controversy over the so-called too-poppy “Shiny Happy People”—and maybe that the album has guest vocals from KRS-One and Kate Pierson of the B-52s—but that many among those wider, late-to-the-party fans don’t understand: “I’m not sure all these people understand,” Stipe sings in the haunting and magnificent “Nightswimming.”

Maybe, just maybe, R.E.M. is about the politics of understanding, a call to the politics of intimacy.

Theirs is the art of the politics of the beautiful, of raising voices and instruments against all the unnecessary shit.

I fall in love hard with musical performers/groups and writers. And then I consume everything they create.

There is a direct line from my love affair with R.E.M. to The National, and especially with R.E.M. disbanding, my time and energy have been disproportionately committed to The National and CAKE.

So I have recently revisited Out of Time, and it has been lovely and tearful.

R.E.M. as the politics of the beautiful.

But the beautiful of Out of Time for me is “Low,” “Belong,” “Half a World Away,” and “Country Feedback.”

“I’ve had too much to drink/ I didn’t think, I didn’t think of you,” echoes into my bones—and then:

Oh, this lonely world is wasted
Pathetic eyes, high-alive
Blind eye that turns to see
The storm it came up strong
It shook the trees and blew away our fear

The politics of the beautiful, the politics of understanding, the politics of intimacy.

“That’s me in the corner,” I suppose, “Like a hurt lost and blinded fool, fool.”

And I miss R.E.M.