Actually, Trump is Pretty Easy to Beat

I watched the last democratic debate on Wednesday night and one of the subjects brought up over and over by every candidate was “we need to choose a candidate who can beat Donald Trump,” with each making their own case for why they’re that person. The way each candidate talked was in line with how most liberals I know (or follow on Twitter) seem to view this upcoming election, as a very difficult one against a candidate who is uniquely hard to defeat. It’s easy to understand why they feel this way: we all got cocky last election thinking Trump had no chance, he seemed immune to scandals or deficiencies that would sink other candidates, and of course, he won and is now an incumbent. But increasingly I think people fundamentally misunderstand what happened last election and as a result are underrating the chances of the democratic nominee, regardless of who it is.

My belief in this is primarily rooted in one idea: that Hillary Clinton was possibly the worst presidential candidate in American history. This has nothing to do with my own beliefs or feelings about her but is instead a conclusion that I think can be reached by clearly looking at facts. Clinton had never shown a particular knack for winning elections and was essentially gifted the Democratic nomination because it was “her turn.” The first sign she might not be a great candidate was when relative unknown Bernie Sanders put a huge dent in her campaign. Hillary had spent years in the public eye being a polarizing political figure, and whether it’s fair or not, people just don’t really like Hillary, as evidenced by her consistently low favorability ratings.

Despite Hillary being uniquely bad, Trump’s victory required a wide confluence of fortunate events. Hillary was a heavy favorite in the days leading up to the election until the infamous Comey letter gradually swung the odds until Trump was (if I remember correctly) about 30-40 percent to win on Election Day according to FiveThirtyEight. Even with the letter (and Russia and sexism if you want to fold in those factors), Trump won by very narrowly defeating Clinton in three swing states while losing the popular vote, and my guess is if you simulated that Election Day a million times he probably wins less than 50 percent of the time.

In addition to that evidence, there’s just the reality that all of us witnessed Trump bumble his way through the campaign, beat a clown car of incompetent Republican frontrunners in the GOP primary, run into a constant string of scandals, and get crushed in every debate by a not particularly great debater. Of course, he has a base of people who like him and Republicans who will put up with him, but that isn’t enough people to turn him into an electoral powerhouse. Now running as an incumbent, he doesn’t have that “let’s burn this whole system down” angle supporting him, but instead will be forced to defend the status quo of his own presidency, which rates as highly unpopular in every poll, putting him in the same company as past incumbent losers like Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

Every potential democratic nominee (except for Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg, who objectively suck) will likely be favored over Trump in a general election. People my age don’t really like Joe Biden or Amy Klobuchar much, but they’re each skilled politicians who know how to win elections and are generally liked. Bernie Sanders, the current frontrunner, has consistently high favorability ratings, is pretty much scandal-free (outside of media-created pseudo-scandals like “Bernie Bros” and concern over his age), and has an enthusiastic base with a message that emotionally resonates with a wide range of people. Elizabeth Warren could potentially unite those two sides of the party, winning over some of the less extreme Bernie supporters while also appealing to moderates and independents. Regardless of your own leanings, it seems really obvious to me that these choices are far better than Hillary Clinton, who was widely hated and only created enthusiasm among those weird people on Twitter who thought she was Daenarys Targaryen or something.

And note that this is coming from me, someone who is cynical to a fault and has essentially no faith in humanity to ever do the right thing. I’m fully aware that the majority of voters just pick who they like most in a very lizard-brained way. That’s part of why I think one of the popular democratic nominees, especially someone like Sanders who has likability and authenticity, is likely to win over a widely despised incumbent. Basically, I don’t think Trump is an effective campaigner just because he barely won one election against a horrible candidate, and this time he will face a much stronger candidate in a far less favorable context. This doesn’t mean it will literally be an easy campaign or that he can’t possibly win again, but other than PTSD or Russia conspiracy theories, there is no real reason for liberals to be so scared of this guy. Right now, the biggest thing liberals need to overcome is their own defeatist mentality.

 

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: All Circles Vanish

There’s a reason beyond my own laziness that this project has hit a snag: Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age (henceforth referred to in this piece as “this album”) is a uniquely difficult album that resists most typical attempts at interpretation and analysis. I’ve never been sure if I really understood everything it was trying to do, or if I was even meant to. Through the years, my opinions on it have vacillated from “this isn’t even a true Broadcast album” all the way to “this is the most Broadcast album of all the Broadcast albums.”

Released four years after Tender Buttons, this album was a collaboration with The Focus Group (Julian House), who had collaborated on the band’s artwork in the past and had an obsession with digging through the past and repurposing old sounds into little bits of psychedelia. He drove enough of this project to receive equal billing, which has led to a weird modern frustration — this album doesn’t appear on Broadcast’s Spotify page, but is listed under “Broadcast and the Focus Group,” making it easy to miss for new fans discovering the group and adding to the perception that this was more of a side project and not one of the band’s “true” albums. This was also the only Broadcast album (other than 2011’s posthumous Berberian Sound Studio, which I don’t really think of as one of their “canon” albums) released while I was an active fan, but I mostly remember not initially liking it because it was so different, and I might have went about five years before I even listened to it again.

Years later, the album has grown on me a lot, but I still think there was some validity to my initial reaction — that the appeal of Broadcast was how they made pop songs that were simple, but contained layers of weirdness and psychedelia underneath that you could gradually unfold. This album removes a lot of that satisfying subtlety and replaces it with very overt strangeness — this is more of a shout than a whisper like “Echo’s Answer.” The litany of samples and sounds in every song are jarring, and I’ve never been able to tell how much of it was original material and how much was scrapbooked together from old horror movies and the Radiophonic Workshop. The only traditional song on this album comes at the beginning: “The Be Colony” isn’t too far off from classic Broadcast and is one of my favorites by the group.

After that, this album is pretty much just a trip, and it takes a lot of the more subtle psychedelic aspects in Broadcast’s music and amplifies them to the fullest. The entire Alice in Wonderland construction of their songs comes very heavily to the forefront here, with Keenan’s ghostly innocent voice surrounded by all sorts of obscure sounds. It is never unpleasant to listen to because of the band’s gift for gentle melodies, but at times it is frustrating because of its patchwork structure. Parts like the haunting beginning of “Royal Chant” that I want to go on forever drift away in about 40 seconds, replaced by the next oddball sound they dug up. That makes it difficult to latch onto any sort of central meaning or purpose to the songs at times.

I’m normally weary of just accepting musician’s explanations of what their music is at face value (I prefer deciding for myself), but in this case, Keenan had a good summary:

I’d like people to enjoy the album as a Hammer horror dream collage where Broadcast play the role of the guest band at the mansion drug party by night, and a science worshipping Eloi possessed by 3/4 rhythms by day, all headed by the Focus Group leader who lays down sonic laws that break through the corrective systems of timing and keys.

That provides a bit of a road map to the album, but it’s still one that, at least for me, is more prickly and hard to love than all of their other efforts. One thing I think defines Broadcast’s music is a spirit of generosity — their songs had a warmth to them through sound, but also allowed listeners freedom to slowly find the truth and meaning hinted at in their songs. This is the only music they made that has a hint of self-indulgence to it, a sense that maybe it was more fun for them to make than it was to listen to.

Despite these reservations, there are times I listen to this album and convince myself that it was actually the purest representation of Broadcast. It captures many of the band’s obsessions in their purest form: the use of old sounds to create something new and weird, the desire to challenge listeners, and the idea of using psychedelic music as a door into a different way of thinking. It’s radically different from everything they did previously, yet also kind of the same, and I believe the band set out to make an album that was effective in part because it was disorienting, confusing, and not easily interpreted or analyzed. Broadcast loved making puzzles, and this is one I still haven’t figured out — that might make it the most effective of them all.

Brock Lesnar, The Royal Rumble, and the Art of Pissing Off Your Own Fans

I realized recently why I like WWE more than most other wrestling fans and don’t really enjoy AEW: I’m a bad person who enjoys seeing people get upset. AEW’s vision for wrestling is very positive, it’s inclusive, and it’s about pleasing their rabid audience, who are maniacally into every show and cheer loudly for all the wrestlers. This approach has a lot of upsides in terms of the “we’re all in this together” vibe of the promotion, and the way it’s been branded and marketed to this audience is part of why it’s been doing well for an upstart company. The downside is that it makes it hard to tell a story that authentically gets fans riled up in the way wrestling can. Sure, the company has some heels like MJF and Pac who will do villainous things, but because the underlying feeling about the company is so positive, I never get the sense that people are genuinely upset by their actions — they’ll boo and play along with the story because that’s “being a good fan,” but they’re not actually pissed because the company itself is portrayed as benevolent and caring, even within its own fictional universe.

This is a big contrast to WWE, which for a long time has portrayed itself as a heel company in storyline. Its hottest storyline ever involved Stone Cold Steve Austin fighting the boss, Vince McMahon, and recent storylines have involved similar demonic authority figures who meddle with the crowd’s favorite wrestlers. This approach has myriad downsides, and has probably cultivated the general feeling of resentment many fans have towards WWE, but it can also still be harnessed to tell stories that have an emotional weight that I’m not sure a company like AEW could quite pull off. The clearest most recent example was “Kofimania,” in which 11-year veteran Kofi Kingston finally got a chance at the world title that eluded him his whole career. He ended up jumping through hoops set up by Vince McMahon, who claimed he didn’t feel he was championship material, before finally winning the big one at Wrestlemania and then going on a lengthy Cinderella title run. But in the end, the clock struck midnight and it all came crashing down at the hands of Brock Lesnar.

This was one of WWE’s shrewdest meta-booking moves of the year, and it made fans legitimately irate. They hated that Kofi went on this long run only to be booked to get squashed by Lesnar in four seconds. They hated that Brock, who wrestles only part-time and has been portrayed as someone who hates wrestling and the fans, was champion again, which meant his title would disappear from TV. A segment of fans will still insist they hated it because it was “bad storytelling,” but they should learn that an unhappy ending isn’t always a bad one. This succeeded in making people hate Lesnar even more and it gained Kofi tons of sympathy because, once again, the company screwed him and didn’t see any value in him. If this match had gone on for 10 minutes with Brock winning, that emotion wouldn’t have been there — the feeling would have been that Kofi got a fair shot, it was a good title run, and everyone would have moved on with their lives.

Booking moments like this are part of why Lesnar is the best heel in wrestling. WWE has meticulously booked him like a god over the years, and he’s always there to crush the dreams of your favorite wrestlers with his stupid repeated German suplexes. His mouthpiece, Paul Heyman, is one of the best talkers in wrestling history and is the perfect guy to bloviate about his accomplishments to further piss off the fans. Fans believe in Lesnar because of his legitimate credentials (former UFC champion) and because he rarely shows much of his personality to the public. At a recent Minnesota Gopher wrestling event, Lesnar was a guest coach and was seen smiling and taking pictures with children, and it was jarring because the image of him seen on WWE — a ruthless beast who only takes pleasure in tormenting others and hates having to show up and wrestle — is so rarely contradicted anywhere.

This past Sunday, Lesnar decided to enter first in the Royal Rumble, and it answered the question many fans have about why WWE invests so much in him. The Rumble match is an annual favorite that involves 30 wrestlers entering the match one-at-a-time every 90 seconds until only one is left standing in the ring. Typically, the ring fills up with guys who sort of fake fight while one notable thing is happening at a time, but this year’s was different: with Lesnar starting first and vowing to eliminate everyone (his reasons were never outright stated, but presumably it was to prove his dominance and make children cry), this match instead became a series of dramatic confrontations, with a variety of wrestlers trying their hand at slaying the beast while fans speculated on who would be the one to do it. It was the best one of these matches I’ve ever seen and an example of WWE’s antagonistic storytelling method being executed perfectly.

This match is fascinating because the entire first half is WWE pissing off its own audience, and it’s just not something you see in any other storytelling medium. Lesnar starts in the ring and predictably throws out a series of wrestlers who aren’t portrayed as being close to his level competitively. These first eliminations (Elias, Erick Rowan, John Morrison and Bobby Roode) aren’t exciting to watch necessarily, but they create a context for the rest of this match, establishing that Lesnar is unstoppable and that eliminating him will be nearly impossible. So by entry #6, fans are getting a bit uneasy, wondering if anyone can take Lesnar down or if WWE is really going to book him to “bury” the entire roster.

At #6, Kofi Kingston comes out and it’s the first confrontation of the match that feels like a big deal due to their match months earlier. And as Kofi starts kicking the crap out of Lesnar for a few seconds and the crowd goes nuts, WWE’s booking of that match fully clicks for me, because I feel how desperately the fans want to see the likable face overcome the monstrous heel. Kofi is the first to survive the first 90 seconds and then he’s joined by Rey Mysterio, a legendary cruiserweight whose large adult son, Dominick, was assaulted by Brock months ago. 90 seconds later, they’re joined by Kofi’s tag team partner, Big E (who is big) and all three of the faces team up and go after Brock.

The fans are hyped for this trio to eliminate Brock, but he ends up eliminating all of them after a couple incredible spots that showcase his freakish athleticism. Then Brock eliminates the next few guys without much effort (Cesaro, Shelton Benjamin, Shinsuke Nakamura, MVP), giving the fans some time to breathe and continuing to build a sense of uneasiness in the room, a feeling that Brock might actually win this entire stupid match. At this point, I glance at Twitter and Reddit and just see fans yelling about how horrible the match is, how much they hate everything, etc. But this is exactly what WWE wanted them to be saying and the company is playing them like a fiddle at this point — this whole segment of the match is like a symphony of audience manipulation.

Keith Lee comes out next — he’s a massive, athletic star on the rise and was a popular pick to knock Lesnar out. Brock’s reactions to Lee are hilarious and the two behemoths go toe-to-toe. Because Lesnar has just been manhandling everyone in the match for so long, Lee looks incredible just for holding his own against him, and when he takes Brock off his feet with a shoulder tackle, the crowd goes crazy (think about that for a moment — the crowd cheered loudly for the most basic move in wrestling). The two collide mid-ring and are down when Braun Strowman, an even more massive man, joins the fray, so at this point Lesnar is exhausted and up against two giants. But when Lee and Strowman start fighting each other, Brock sneaks up and eliminates both, and the crowd totally deflates. You can feel them thinking “that was our chance and they just blew it.”

Ricochet, the pre-eminent flippy-doo wrestler of this whole generation of flippy wrestlers, comes out next, jumps right into Brock’s arms like an idiot and gets casually ragdolled into the corner. Then Drew McIntyre’s music hits and he comes to the ring looking like a guy from the cover of a romance novel and stares down his enemy. Brock focuses in on him and starts removing his gloves, knowing that McIntyre means serious business. But Ricochet comes to and kicks Lesnar in the balls, then McIntyre hits his signature “Claymore kick” on Brock and sends him toppling over the top rope.

The crowd reaction to this is something seldom seen — it was like their home team just won the Super Bowl or something, and I practically expected champagne to start popping. And it wasn’t a bunch of fans cheering because they love the WWE brand — it was because they legitimately, in real life, hate Brock Lesnar and were overjoyed that he was eliminated from this match that it was starting to look like he was winning. And now, just by kicking this large albino-gorilla-looking guy over the top rope, McIntyre (who has mostly been a villain in WWE) is instantly the most beloved face in the company. WWE brilliantly doubled down on this booking and ended up having McIntyre win the whole match about 30 minutes later, setting him up to face Brock for the title at Wrestlemania.

Brock Lesnar’s performance in the match was legendary — he was terrifying, brutal, and looked completely unstoppable. He’s so incredibly good at pro wrestling, but a lot of fans don’t realize it because they legitimately resent him due to how he has been booked and portrayed. WWE harnessed those negative emotions in this match and used it to create a new star in McIntyre, who had been previously directionless. This match was a perfect example of the give-and-take of wrestling storytelling and how context and build can create amazing moments. In order to feel as joyful and happy as fans did in that moment Lesnar was eliminated, they first needed to be really furious.

A Good Segment From Monday Night Raw, Which is a Good Show

I’m not sure if there is anything in other media quite like the relationship between wrestling fans and WWE’s flagship show, Monday Night Raw. Clocking in at three hours every Monday night, Raw is the most-watched wrestling show in the world despite the fact that seemingly everyone hates it. There is an entire industry now of YouTubers, podcasters, and social media personalities who build their entire brand around trashing Raw and dramatically talking about how TERRIBLE and SO BAD everything is, and it’s become something of a bizarre shared ritual where fans tune in to bitch about the writing, the wrestlers that are being pushed, the amount of talking on the show, and pretty much anything else anyone could possibly complain about. This sort of contrived “suffering fan” schtick is insufferable to me and it’s part of why I tend to keep my wrestling fandom guarded in public.

I’ve always enjoyed Raw, but often it’s been something like a guilty pleasure. I have a certain respect for the difficulty of putting on a 3-hour show every week for a fickle and tough audience, and if the show ever had major flaws (and boy did it ever), I usually would find them fascinating instead of frustrating. It provides a lot of analytical fodder, thinking of how they could have handled certain wrestlers, how they should be telling a story, what a segment was trying to accomplish that it didn’t, etc. One reason I recommend wrestling is that you get a really strong visceral sense of how storytelling works in real time, and sometimes there is a lot to be learned in watching WWE step in it. But lately, for a variety of reasons, Raw has become an actual good show, with what seems to be a more logical booking philosophy and plan for its main characters. And it turns out, it’s just as fun to analyze something that actually works.

One segment in particular on this week’s show captured the essence of what I think pro wrestling should be. To the surprise of nobody who is familiar with my scorching wrestling takes, it involves the best professional wrestler in the world, Becky Lynch. That is a bit controversial because most wrestling fans on the internet think being a professional wrestler means doing the most cool moves, flipping around the ring like a gymnast, and having self-indulgent 4o-minute matches that are designed to get “five stars” from hack wrestling journalists and “this is awesome” chants from fans who don’t care who wins. I’m part of a shrinking group of boomer fans who really love the non-match parts of wrestling, and I think a lot of the art in this business comes from talking, promoting, and making people actually give a shit about the match. Nobody is better at that than Becky Lynch.

Becky has run roughshod over the roster since winning all the gold in the main event of Wrestlemania this year, and as with any long title reign, it’s brought out critics who are sick of her push and think she’s a bad wrestler because she isn’t putting on the aforementioned nonsense matches with all the moves and flips. These people are wrong, they’re bad, and they deserve to be shunned from the wrestling community. Because even months into this reign, the crowd still loves Becky and she’s still evolving as a character, from an outlaw rebel who was defying the company to the self-admitted “golden goose” of WWE who now has to fight to maintain her individuality and desire for the toughest fights while being “protected” due to her value as a corporate spokeswoman.

The target for Becky is Asuka, the Japanese wrestler who beat her nearly a year ago at the Royal Rumble and has continued to have her number since. Becky’s story is that WWE didn’t want her to face Asuka, figuring she’d lose again and it would damage her marketability as “the face of the company.” Asuka is a mega-talented wrestler who doesn’t speak much English but still has tons of charisma, and she’s only lost a tiny handful of matches in her entire career. Lately she’s taken to spraying her opponents with “green mist,” and in this week’s segment she hit Becky with it after signing the contract for the match at this year’s Royal Rumble.

At this point, it’s worth observing that spraying green mist in people’s eyes is not something that people generally do, and it’s seldom seen in the real world. That’s part of what made this segment feel so definitively pro wrestling to me: it’s this ridiculous character trait that has been passed down in Japanese tradition (notably by The Great Muta, who Asuka cites as an inspiration) and it’s just this weird wrestling thing that exists and is accepted by fans. The reason it’s accepted is because of performances like Becky’s in this clip: of course we know wrestling is fake, and within the realm of fakeness the green mist is even faker, but she sells it seriously and believably as if it is incredibly painful. And because she is so damn good at this, and it’s presented without any irony or winking at the audience, fans actually believe now that this mist is a real dangerous thing, that Asuka can hit it at any time, and that the most pushed woman in the company’s title reign could be in jeopardy.

Then Becky demands a microphone and delivers a fantastic promo while recovering from the mist and looking into a camera that she is blindly swiping at with her hands.  Maybe it got a little too fanciful with its language, but I felt the emotion and the intensity, and it was from someone who just is their character, not someone who is playing a role and thinks of themselves as a performance artist. And now because of segments like this, I want to see the match and there’s a clear sense of stakes — Becky needs to win this match to prove something to herself and to get revenge on Asuka. All of this build-up is going to make their match at Royal Rumble feel bigger, the moves are going to mean more, and it will almost certainly be awesome, even though I don’t think either of these wrestlers has ever done a flippy move in their life.

This should be Pro Wrestling 101, but the current landscape is polluted with an “everyone knows wrestling is fake so nobody will care about anything so why should we even try” mentality where everyone just does outlandish goofy crap and winks at the audience. I can’t even go to indie shows because all of them feature so much dumb nonsense on the card, and WWE’s competitor, AEW, continues to struggle at telling stories that have any real sense of gravitas or stakes like this one does, despite the ridiculousness of the green mist. So, bizarrely, Monday Night Raw, the punching bag of fans, is my favorite wrestling show right now and the one that I think has the most talent and a philosophy that makes me want to watch.

Cold Beat’s “Prism” is the Early Song of the Decade

The biggest thing that has always stopped me from being successful as a writer is my inability to produce something when I don’t really feel inspired. When it comes to music, I have no idea how some of these people get themselves fired up to write about albums every single week when most music isn’t all that great. My laziness and inability to pretend to like things means that just getting me to throw a post together is something of an accomplishment, and I use it as a marker of success if anything is able to get me to care enough to write. Cold Beat is one of the only bands that consistently makes me want to throw a shout into the internet echo chamber in the hopes that someone will hear it.

It is difficult to discuss Hannah Lew’s band and not have it be through the lens of how underappreciated they are — I don’t even say “underrated” because they aren’t even rated. Genuinely no one talks about this band other than me. I might actually be their biggest fan, and maybe I should give up and accept that they just don’t appeal to other listeners because they’re all worse at appreciating music than I am. Their new song “Prism” makes me want to keep fighting, though.

This is from their upcoming album, Mother, written during Lew’s pregnancy, and it feels like a strong continuation from their previous album, Chaos By Invitation, which I lauded to a largely indifferent pseudo-audience. With few lyrics, there isn’t much to grab onto in terms of themes, but musically it is a distinct work from the band, who have really carved out their own space in all of these 80s synth pop acts. Cold Beat is still really into purposeful ambiguity — the lyrics aren’t telling the listener anything, but I still feel like there is a clear emotion and meaning to it and I’m always one listen away from figuring it out. Artists who can pull off that trick tend to be among my favorites, and it’s something Lew has shown a knack for even going back to her previous band, Grass Widow.

The ambiguity is part of what makes “Prism” addictive, along with its multiple repeating motorik grooves that are joined by some swirly synths that give it a celestial quality. The band is saying this album is trying to describe earth to a newborn, and the sounds here capture the ground and the sky, along with some of the wonders of looking up into space. Once again, Cold Beat have made a song that isn’t necessarily complicated on the surface and put in so many layers that keep revealing themselves. This is the work of a band in prime form, and Mother is instantly my most anticipated album of 2020.

A Dispatch From the Wednesday Night Wrestling Wars

The most polarizing character in wrestling right now is Orange Cassidy, a comedic character who performs in the ring as if he just woke up from a hangover and has no interest in anything that is going on. When he enters the ring, he lightly kicks his opponents in a parody of the typical “babyface fire-up” in wrestling, when the heroic character regains their strength and starts hitting all of their impactful moves. Fans react with ironic shock at Cassidy’s “brutal violence,” and it’s generally been a popular gimmick that taps into the type of ironic comedy and memes that are currently popular with the youths.

While Cassidy is a minor player in All Elite Wrestling, the upstart promotion that just began airing a weekly TV show called “Dynamite” a few weeks ago, I increasingly think he is the litmus test for potential fans of the company. AEW stormed onto the airwaves on TNT with a wave of momentum from fans who are fed up with WWE’s monopoly on large-scale American wrestling and its various frustrating creative and booking decisions. However, in a few weeks, AEW has lost hundreds of thousands of viewers as potential fans tuned in and lost interest. I’m one of those who has eventually tuned out, and Cassidy is emblematic of the reasons why.

It’s not that Orange Cassidy is necessarily unfunny — it’s that he represents a flaw in the core of AEW’s DNA that makes it impossible for me to enjoy it as a fan of wrestling. Even though wrestling is fake, I think it is at its best when it feels real and it taps into authentic emotions and makes people feel invested in the winner of the match. Maybe that sounds like a silly notion if you don’t watch wrestling, but think of it like any other form of entertainment. If you read or watch  The Lord of Rings, of course you know that the world is fictitious, that hobbits and wizards and orcs don’t really exist. But it is still presented as a world with its own set of rules and logic, which combined with serious storytelling makes you still feel an attachment to the characters. Once you’ve suspended your disbelief in this way and gotten caught up in the world, storytelling moments like Gandalf’s “death” generate emotional reactions that are very real, even though he is a fictional character.

The massive problem I have with AEW that I haven’t really seen discussed much (most hardcore wrestling fans and critic types love this show) is that it has absolutely no suspension of disbelief, in part due to the comedic hijinks of a character like Orange Cassidy, whose entire gimmick and humor is based on knowing that what you’re watching isn’t real. But it goes beyond Cassidy: because the show is aimed at the young male wrestling fan who knows the ins and outs of wrestling shows, it plays constantly to that base with insider jokes and winks at the audience. The matches themselves don’t feel real either, even for the standards of pretend fighting — a lot of the matches in AEW are more like choreographed gymnastics displays, with the clear goal being to “put on a great match” instead of trying to win or hurt your opponent.

AEW’s champion, Chris Jericho, is one of wrestling’s greatest performers, but over the run of the show his character has become increasingly goofy and silly, with promos that more closely resemble bad SNL sketches or improv routines than the classic style of wrestling promo that I love. Instead of building conflicts based on emotion and real-life feelings, his segments are increasingly focused on props and jokes, and because he is funny, fans don’t desire to see him lose the way they should with a heel champion. Even when Jericho gets booed by the fans, it’s obvious that they’re playing along because “this is a good heel promo,” not because they actually hate the guy and want to see someone beat him.

Another potential star, Jon Moxley, left WWE right before the launch of AEW and talked a big game about how he was held back there creatively and was going to change wrestling once the shackles of the evil corporation were off him. What got me most excited about AEW was to see what this guy could do with more creative freedom and a chip on his shoulder. But it became apparent pretty quickly that he had no brilliant ideas: he just wanted to behave like a generic badass who walks through the crowd and loves violence while “wrestling” garbage deathmatches with contrived weapons that are in no way believable or entertaining, such has his indulgent, interminable match with Kenny Omega at their last pay-per-view. Moxley said he hated WWE’s “hokey shit,” but his match with Omega was the hokiest thing I’ve ever seen in wrestling with its use of mouse traps and other dumb weapons.

AEW’s women’s division has also been a massive problem, in part due to WWE having a monopoly on talent and in part due to AEW being run by a bunch of guys who don’t seem to care much about telling stories in the division. Its champion, Riho, weighs about 95 pounds and wins all of her matches with sneaky roll-ups. Undersized heroes will always be a thing in wrestling, but Riho doesn’t even seem to have a mean streak or a switch she can hit where she starts kicking ass. She’s portrayed as completely sweet and innocent, someone who would never hurt a fly, which is boring in a wrestling context where I want to experience some catharsis in a staged fight. So just the idea of this demure character being the best women’s wrestler in the company is another of the many things reminding you of how fake AEW is.

Further damaging AEW was WWE’s ruthless and frankly evil decision to put its “NXT” show head-to-head with AEW by switching to a two-hour cable format. And it’s formed an obvious contrast with AEW by taking itself seriously with high-level performers and a logical storytelling flow week-to-week. To me, the breakout star on NXT since its move to cable has been Rhea Ripley, and she has also served to expose many of AEW’s flaws. She is everything missing from AEW: a wrestler who is serious, has star power, looks and acts legit, and the fact that she’s a woman has only further turned a spotlight on the clown show that is the competition’s women’s division. While AEW’s champion barely looks like she could hold her own in a fight, Ripley gives off the vibe that she’s going to rip someone’s head off at any moment. There is intensity and emotion in Ripley’s performances, which are a far cry from the bland choreography in AEW. She’s now set to take on long-reigning women’s champion Shayna Baszler in a match that feels much bigger than anything AEW has offered.

Baszler is her own contrast to AEW and its champion. While Jericho has been putting on interminable promo segments that seek to “entertain” and make people laugh, even though he is a heel, Baszler is no fun whatsoever. She’s a mean, sadistic bully, and she’s held the title for so long and is so ruthless that fans are becoming desperate to see someone knock her off the mountain. And since NXT has an incredibly talented women’s division, fans get to speculate and hope that one of their favorites can be the one to dethrone Shayna. That’s just classic heel wrestling psychology, and that’s what I find fun in wrestling more than segments that are desperately trying to be clever. Even though the fans of NXT are aware of a lot of the behind-the-scenes information, they buy into Baszler because she is believable and serious, and everyone is emotionally invested in seeing who can beat her.

I feel a little bad for these opinions, because the truth is I wanted an alternative to WWE, and I like that AEW exists to push them a bit instead of letting them become complacent. At the same time, I’m not going to watch a show I don’t like because “it’s the right thing to do,” and I also don’t believe WWE is evil and AEW is some virtuous company when both are run by billionaires, who are all inherently horrible. For all of WWE’s faults, they still deliver storytelling that has more emotion and takes itself more seriously than AEW, which seems to lack the confidence to do anything without winking at you and reminding you that it’s all just for show. That might appeal to certain fans of irony and memes — the people who love Orange Cassidy — but it doesn’t speak to what I think pro wrestling can be.

 

 

My Favorite Albums of the Decade: The Top Ten

10. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors (2019)

By the end of the decade, Angel Olsen had established herself as a brilliant singer who often made music that I didn’t find incredibly interesting. On All Mirrors, she dropped the lo-fi pretensions and enveloped her voice in majestic orchestra and synth arrangements that took the drama in her songs to an entirely different level. This could have easily backfired but ended up being a revelation: Olsen’s songs fit the cinematic, stagey presentation, and her themes about the passing of time and growing up were conveyed not just in the lyrics, but in her growth as a musician. With full confidence in her ability, she unleashed a series of tracks that each showed a different side of her artistry, making this one of the decade’s strongest showcases of pure prodigious talent.

9. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (2012)

Fiona Apple albums have become rare events, with just two in the last 20 years, and it was easy to see why when listening to The Idler Wheel: this was music that required years of experience in order to live out its stories and craft all the endlessly quotable lyrics. Surrounded by her usual piano with some additional quirky sounds, this was a more spare album than her previous, Extraordinary Machine (which had a controversial squabble over its production), with the focus almost entirely on Apple’s peerless voice and lyrics. Her seeming complete disinterest in contemporary music and trends fueled the unique vibe of The Idler Wheel. These songs seemed to flow out of her organically without desperately trying to fit into a specific style, and it was all in her own singular voice and vocabulary.

8. Tamaryn – The Waves (2010)

It took me almost the entire decade to fully appreciate The Waves, which was released by Tamaryn in 2010 and immediately tossed into the “samey shoegaze revival” bin by most people. Over the years, though, this album separated from all the forgettable pretenders because of the perfect execution of its crystalline goth-rock sound and Tamaryn’s ability as a pop songwriter and singer. On songs like “Love Fade” and “Mild Confusion,” she synthesized almost 30 years worth of shoegaze, goth, and noisy rock while adding layers of emotion and personality with her distinct haunting vocals. The Waves was a masterclass of evocative sound, an album that seemed impossibly vast and fearlessly intimate at the same time.

7. Björk  – Vulnicura (2015)

Vulnicura raises one of the foundational questions of these lists: is an album actually great if you never really want to listen to it? Björk turned the dissolution of a long-term partnership into epic, gorgeous, and miserable drama, bringing back the strings from Homogenic but replacing that album’s forward-thinking pop songs with formless, haunting reflections on the anger and loss she felt. While “Stonemilker” was a throwback to her more majestic, poppy side, the story of the album was how that trademark optimistic sound disappeared, culminating in the 10-minute long crater of despair “Black Lake.” This was not an album to throw on in the car or at a party (unless it was a really weird party), but as an experience and a window into the soul of one of the greatest artists of all time, it was a valuable, completely unique recording that was unrivaled in its emotional weight.

6. Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked For Death (2016)

One of the great stories of the decade was the steady artistic growth of Emma Ruth Rundle, who started her career by quietly churning out a series of intriguing albums as part of The Nocturnes, Marriages, and as a solo artist with records of ambient guitar and folk. On her astonishing breakthrough, Marked For Death, all of the skills she’d been honing felt like they crystalized at once, resulting in spellbinding songs that had as much intensity and feeling as any music I’ve heard. Befitting an artist who dabbled in shoegaze, metal, and folk, the songs on Marked for Death didn’t seem to belong to any genre but Rundles’ own. No one was all that close to this mix of gloomy, atmospheric guitar, impassioned vocals, and songwriting that balanced listenability and experimentation.

5. My Bloody Valentine – m b v (2013)

In maybe the last album release that will ever feel like a communal event, the once-impossible m b v abruptly dropped on My Bloody Valentine’s not-entirely-stable website as the band’s first album in 22 years. In the time since they made the classic Loveless, the band’s trademark shoegaze sound had died out and then come back to life in the form of numerous revival acts (some of whom have already been listed here), so it was hard to know what they could do that would feel vital. I still vividly remember hitting play on this, having no idea what to expect, and feeling the wash of relief and joy when the first notes of “She Found Now” hit and I realized it sounded like classic My Bloody Valentine. The following eight songs told the story of Kevin Shields’ long, probably frustrating journey making the album, with a mix of the classic sound and some songs that took the band somewhere new while staying faithful to what fans love about them. Most of all, it served as a reminder of Shields’ incredible talent: even with a ton of bands trying to sound like My Bloody Valentine, nothing sounded quite like m b v.

4. Emma Ruth Rundle – On Dark Horses (2018)

The giant leap of Marked for Death was always going to make it a tough album for Rundle to follow. But she managed to very narrowly top herself with On Dark Horses, which slightly broadened her sound with a wider range of collaborators and a slightly more traditional rock style that still didn’t really resemble anything else because of her unique musical background. The biggest leap on this album was in its lyrics, which felt more tangible and real than the sometimes vague and biblical words on Marked For Death, and there were even powerful moments of uplift in the gloomy fog created by her guitar. The quiet/loud structures and legitimate rock hooks on songs like “Dead Set Eyes” and “Light Song” gave On Dark Horses a sense of immediacy — Rundle’s songs were easy to get into, and her execution of them made me want to listen to them forever.

3. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (2011)

PJ Harvey’s career is full of left turns, and on Let England Shake they all finally formed a circle. She combined the haunting ghostly sounds of White Chalk, the brutal intensity of Rid of Me, and the atmospheric beauty of Is This Desire? into a cohesive pastoral folk style that still felt new to her, and attached it to an album that explored the lasting effects of war in her native England. Not content to make simplistic “war is bad” screeds, Harvey went several steps deeper, portraying herself as a time traveler or a ghost who described the horrors in vivid detail while connecting them to her own life as someone who knows the history and wishes she could change it. The callbacks in the album’s sound (which included strategic samples of classic music) and the lyrics each told a complete story of how the past is always with us, even if we didn’t experience it ourselves.

2. Colleen Green – I Want to Grow Up (2015)

Already known for her ability to craft catchy pop-punk tunes that didn’t take themselves too seriously, Colleen Green put all of herself into I Want to Grow Up and created a defining tragicomedy for a certain type of stunted millennial. Green’s straight-forward songwriting and blasé attitude added a weird power to her bluntly honest and revealing lyrics, which varied between different shades of devastation in either their relatability, sadness or hilarity. “TV” might have been the most real love song of the decade and “Deeper Than Love” was the album’s emotional centerpiece, a jarring and uncomfortable exploration of Green’s anxieties and fear of intimacy set to an addictive drum machine groove. Folk singers get all the credit for “baring their souls” in their boring music, but most could never approach the authenticity and pathos of this brutally simple, fun rock album. Maybe the highest praise I can give I Want to Grow Up is that by the end of it, I knew exactly who Green was. In its own unambitious way, this was a masterpiece of character-driven comedic storytelling, like A Confederacy of Dunces with riffs.

1. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – The Kid (2017)

Albums like The Kid come along very rarely, and they remind me of why I listen to music: to hear different stories, to experience creative people in their element, and to experience something that sparks my imagination and makes me understand the world a little better. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s detailed modular synth compositions told a story of a life primarily through sound, evoking almost any emotion anyone could want from music. “An Intention” and the title track showed the early innocent moments of childhood when you open your eyes to the world, “In the World but Not of the World” portrayed the young adult feeling of questioning and surprising yourself, and its classic closing track, “To Feel Your Best,” was a profoundly moving conclusion about facing the end with a loved one. In between those major story moments, Smith’s constant playful experimentation on her synths had a magical, unjaded charm, with wonder and youthful spirit flowing out of every quirky sound. Smith’s artistry made me feel like a kid again, like I had just discovered something totally new that amazed me because it was so beyond the scope of my comprehension.