Give Me What I Want

A few weeks ago, I was watching WWE, and there was a promo segment between Batista and Triple H. Batista had just returned to wrestling after embarking on a successful Hollywood acting career in movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and was setting up a feud with his former mentor for WrestleMania. His rustiness from the business might be why he seemingly forgot all of his lines when he went on stage, which resulted in one of the most awkward verbal exchanges I’ve seen in my years of watching wrestling. For multiple minutes, all he did was yell “GIVE ME WHAT I WANT” at Triple H in his most intense wrestler delivery that sent spit all over the place. The absurdity of the promo helped it reach instant meme status.

Beyond the comical nature of the promo, what I think resonated about it was how Batista unwittingly captured the tone and tenor of fanbases in 2019, especially WWE’s, which is notorious for spending most of its time grumbling about the company’s booking decisions rather than enjoying the show. But while hardcore wrestling fans have long been known for being jaded and miserable, the “give me what I want” ethos has now spread to almost all circles of fandom via the internet. Unlimited viewing, listening, playing, and reading options have cultivated a sense of entitlement in audiences, who increasingly want their entertainment to only reflect their own personal tastes, values, and desires. A popular TV show like Game of Thrones comes with weekly episodic recaps on 240 different websites which all tediously pick apart the storytelling choices, character beats, directorial decisions, possible plot and logic holes, etc. Like wrestling, a lot of TV now is watched by groups of “smart” fans who are less invested in the story itself than in the making of the story and whether it fits their own vision for how things should go.

Thrones has been the most frustrating in this regard. This is an incredible show, with a scope and scale never before seen on TV and a roster of morally ambiguous, well-drawn characters with compelling backstories. It’s delivering spectacle with huge battles and dragons, but also is examining dark, adult subject matter like rape, abuse, suffering and redemption in a way that is far deeper than ever attempted on TV. Yet if you look to find analysis of these artistic qualities of the show, you mostly will come up empty outside of the work of a couple of dedicated writers (my favorites are Sean T. Collins and Gretchen Felker-Martin). Instead, what you get is every random writer on every website complaining about what the writers should have done instead, bemoaning choices made by characters, complaining about “problematic” elements of the script, etc. Rather than take the show for what it is and appreciate its obvious strengths (while still pointing out areas where it could be improved), I get the sense that many are going out of their way to be dissatisfied with it as it reaches its final episodes.

I’m always in favor of thinking critically about art, but this strain of fandom feels jaded, myopic, and unproductive. I don’t think most people doing this are seriously engaging with the show and what it is trying to say; they’re viewing it with an ironic detachment, snarking about minute details and completely missing the bigger picture. Everyone spends more time wondering how the characters traveled from Winterfell to King’s Landing so quickly instead of thinking about the actual overarching themes of the work. No one is obligated to enjoy Game of Thrones or all of the creative decisions of the show, but there is rarely even an attempt to engage with it in a reasonable way. So we’re in this weird situation where this show is massively popular, it’s amazing, and yet it feels almost underrated as a work of art, because so few people are even making a good faith effort to engage with and appreciate the greatness that is right in front of them.

But far from just cultivating a blasé attitude towards art, this “give me what I want” mentality also causes art to be more safe and less impactful when it’s taken seriously by creators. A few weeks ago, the creator of Bojack Horseman retweeted someone saying that shows shouldn’t depict rape for the same reason they don’t depict someone having diarrhea — because audiences don’t want to see it. It concerned me because Bojack is one of my favorite shows in part because it has made such an effort to show its audience what it doesn’t want to see. As a viewer invested in the characters, I didn’t want to see Bojack and Diane self-destruct and struggle with depression and alcoholism. But because they have, the show was able to explore mature themes about overcoming personal demons in a way that resonated and was cathartic. The version of Bojack that avoids uncomfortable topics would basically be a kid’s cartoon.

That tweeter’s hot take was almost certainly aimed somewhat at Game of Thrones, which has been notorious for its portrayals of rape and abuse towards women. A certain segment of liberal types have hounded the show with accusations of sexism for years, assuming that the on-screen depictions of violence against women are endorsements of that behavior from the makers of the show — an extremely ungenerous reading of the material that doesn’t really hold up to any reasonable interpretation. The prevailing belief seems to be that these sorts of taboo, sensitive topics should simply never be portrayed in media due to their unpleasantness. Actress Jessica Chastain recently tweeted as such, saying “Rape is not a tool to make a character stronger. A woman doesn’t need to be victimized in order to become a butterfly.” This was in response to the Sansa Stark character acknowledging the abuse she’d faced, how she still lived with it, and how it had shaped who she was. In Chastain’s desired version of the show, Sansa never would have faced suffering, and there would be no insight into the very real abuse women face at the hands of men, both in Westeros and the real world.

This is where the “give me what I want” mindset goes past simply being about lame crowd-pleasing stuff and crosses over into something resembling censorship. Of course, any time the subject of rape is brought into entertainment, it needs to be taken seriously and portrayed in a thoughtful, humane way. I don’t think the Thrones writers have always gotten it right (the infamous Jaime/Cersei scene from a few years ago being the predominant example), but for the most part the show has made an effort to portray the realities and effects of abuse on its victims. Characters like Sansa, Theon, and others have endured abuse and lived with the consequences in a way that has rarely been depicted on TV. If your argument is that rape should never be in entertainment, then that is diminishing a major part of art’s function, which is how it can express feelings of personal traumatic experiences in a shared way that makes people understand it better.

A lot of these arguments strike me as the same types you see from people who want to ban classic novels for being too “dangerous.” What these people really want is for art to be a sanctuary, and for all entertainment to be blandly inoffensive, shiny and flawless. Those who nitpick every barely relevant detail of the logic and character choices often think of themselves as being smarter than the rest of the audience and the writers, when really they have this same childlike mindset towards art. For them, a show like Game of Thrones only exists to be joylessly ripped apart as a means of validating their own perceived intelligence. They don’t want to think about the actual themes or the storytelling.

As we stare down the barrel of another eight million superhero movie sequels and live action Disney remakes, it’s hard not to be a little concerned about the future of art that actually attempts to provoke and challenge audiences. Part of my frustration with the response to this season of Game of Thrones is that we’re really witnessing an end of an era — I doubt another show will capture the public imagination quite like this one, much less one with this much depth and artistry. And yet the response to it by many seems to be a collective shrug, a snarky comment or two while glancing at their phone. That’s why the present and future of entertainment is Marvel movies and other audience-pleasing franchises that don’t require too much thinking or attentiveness. Of course, there will still be real artists making powerful, important work outside of the mainstream — but good luck trying to discuss it with anybody.

Burger King Wants to Be Your Friend

If you have the good fortune of following my often hilarious and always insightful Twitter account, you know of my deep distaste for advertising, specifically this recent trend of “cool” ads where brands try to ingratiate themselves with customers by tweeting like 16 year-olds and speaking about progressive issues. Out of all the dystopian aspects of the internet, this way we have let corporations hang out with us in our communication spaces is maybe the most unsettling. Instead of being on billboards or TV, ads are now basically sitting in our living room, commenting on news, replying to things we say, and trying to make funny quips to make us laugh. Yesterday, Burger King reached a new nadir of this form of advertising.

I’m going to link to the video, but I feel it requires a warning, in the same way you tell someone they might not want to view footage of an athlete gruesomely breaking his ankle or watch a murder. What I mean is, this video will reveal to anyone who views it a darkness in humanity and society that they previously did not know existed. And once that darkness has been revealed, it will always be with you. It will become a part of your soul and haunt you until the day you die. With that out of the way, let’s take a gander at this ad.

I’m going to put in a filler paragraph here just to give you some time to catch up and process what you just witnessed. If you’re like me, you may need to watch the video a second time and rub your eyes, just to make sure it’s real.

When I intensely hate something like this, I do think it is important to put myself in the shoes of someone who likes it. This ad seems widely loathed, but I’m sure some people sincerely appreciated the positive mental health message from a company like Burger King that has no obligation to “speak out” and spread awareness of such topics. But to me, that’s precisely why this ad is so uniquely evil and cynical: it’s using a deeply important societal message as a means to make you feel good about the brand, to buy their product, and to become loyal to Burger King.

I will tell you the one thing Burger King cares about: making money. That’s the only reason why companies make these ads. If the profitable ad strategy was to instead have a guy stare at the camera and say “all of you losers and weirdos are pathetic and have no hope in life, so you might as well eat our shitty burgers at Burger King,” that is what we would be seeing instead. And not only would that be more entertaining, but it would also be more admirable, because it would at least be coming from a place of honesty. But it’s obvious based on recent trends that companies are putting a lot of stock in appearing woke and progressive, presumably as a way to appeal to young people, especially on liberal-skewing platforms like Twitter.

I suspect they do this because it not only can create positive feelings, but because it inoculates the brand from criticism. Anyone ripping on this ad can be written off as someone who is opposed to the message of the ad itself. And who would want to listen to some asshole who doesn’t care about mental health issues? It is often hard to criticize stuff that is really corny and lame, but ultimately coming from a good place with fine intentions. I think it is important to differentiate this malicious ad from that type of media. This commercial is designed to manipulate and fool people.

There are numerous substantive things Burger King could do to make the world a better place. For starters, they could pay their employees more and treat them better. They could serve healthier food that doesn’t contribute to obesity and make people feel like they’re about to die after eating it. They could like, stop existing as a company and just give all of their profits over to mental health charities, if they really cared as much as this video indicates. But instead they want to have it both ways: to appear virtuous and caring while also being a ruthless money-making corporation.

Luckily, I think people did see through this BK ad because it was so poorly conceived. For one thing, I can’t imagine people are interested in approaching a counter or drive through window and saying the sentence “yes, I’ll have one DGAF meal please” out loud to another human. They really sat there in the board room fantasizing about all the clap emojis people would tweet because the burger joint now has something called a “yaaasss meal” (the actual content of these meals, as far as I know, is a mystery). And they thought the best way to make a difference when it comes to mental health was to serve their food in different-colored bags.

To actually think these things, and to believe this would be an effective ad, requires an incredibly low view of humanity, which is really what is at the core of this entire strategy of marketing. It reveals a certain insecurity that the brand doesn’t feel like they can just say “we have good burgers,” but instead has to try to capitalize on people’s emotional weaknesses — in this case, the justified anxiety and stress many have on earth in 2019. And doing it under the pretense that they’re like your friend and care about you is capitalism at its most absurd and distasteful. No matter how positive their message may seem on the surface, these brands deserve nothing but contempt.

Tamaryn Takes Another Step Forward With “Dreaming the Dark”

In the last decade or so, Tamaryn has a collection of albums that stands up to anyone, with a clear progression in her sound and artistic persona, from the immersive shoegaze of her debut The Waves to the synth-pop vision of Cranekiss. While a lot of artists can roughly emulate the sound of classic goth/shoegaze bands like Cocteau Twins, Tamaryn understands what makes this genre actually appeal to listeners, and she consistently delivers memorable songs that have a heightened sense of drama and emotion. A lot of this is due to her singing voice, which has increasingly been the focus of her music and particularly takes center stage on her latest album, Dreaming the Dark.

The arrangements on this album are more sparse than her previous work, which moves it slightly out of the shoegaze realm and more into 80s-style synth pop. The downside of this approach is it loses some of the feeling of getting totally lost in the sound like I still do listening to The Waves, but it also feels like a confident move forward for Tamaryn, who more directly owns these songs rather than getting lost in the production. The full range of her voice is heard on stand-out tracks like “Angels of Sweat” and “Terrified,” as well as her improved lyrics, which serve a more important role in this less noisy style.

While Tamaryn’s music has always been expressive, Dreaming the Dark feels like the closest listeners have come to actually getting to know the artist behind the sounds. “You’re Adored” has a more personal touch, with lyrics written about her dog, while the minimalist “Fits of Rage” shows a more aggressive side of her that is a departure from dreamy pop. While it’s hard to pull obvious meanings out of the songs by just reading the lyrics, the songs are performed in a way where they are obviously meaningful.

It is hard not to get Kate Bush vibes listening to this, especially “Victim Complex” which reminds me of “Waking the Witch” from Hounds of Love. And like Bush, Tamaryn’s music is appealing because it has these fantastical, ethereal qualities, but is still rooted in reality. It’s how Dreaming the Dark works as both escapist pop and as a relatable portrayal of an artist’s feelings and struggles.

“The Seduction of Kansas” is the Ideal Punk Album for 2019

I’m starting to love it when punk bands mellow out. The first album by Priests, Nothing Feels Natural, was released right after Trump was inaugurated and was widely received as an intense call to action. While I liked it fine enough, I didn’t think the songs were overly memorable or original, and it wasn’t an album I found myself going back to since its release. Listening to their new album, The Seduction of Kansas, I feel like the band might have agreed with me: it’s a full-scale evolution that embraces a much wider set of influences and inspirations. Every song sounds different, but it all coheres into an album that retains the band’s fiery voice while being a much more adventurous listen.

The change in direction has led to a less excited response from critics, who seem to struggle with music that doesn’t make its intentions as obvious as possible. They and many others think punk music needs to be about yelling didactic opinions at the listener while playing at max volume. The Seduction of Kansas is the next level of punk, where the artists are confident enough in their words, convictions, and musical ability that they don’t need to make a big show of how aggressive and intense they are. It reminds me of a bit of wisdom I read from former professional wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts, when asked why he tended to speak quietly while other wrestlers were known for screaming into the mic: “If you’re yelling at me, I’m not listening. If you’re whispering, everyone’s listening, thinking it’s a secret.”

The quieter and more spacious sound of The Seduction of Kansas draws me in more than their previous material, and it makes their lyrics feel more impactful. Make no mistake: this is still a rock album, and it has moments that rival the intensity of their previous music. But now those heavier songs, like the opener “Jesus’ Son” and the raucous “Control Freak,” stand out more and feel more vital because they’re surrounded by these funky, surprisingly catchy pop songs. “68 Screen” has an addictive chorus and relatable lyrics about how the internet has warped our perceptions of each other. My favorite song on the album, “Carol,” is almost reminiscent of Stereolab with its driving rhythm, dreamy coda, and the politically conscious lyrics that retain some level of abstraction.

On a philosophical level, The Seduction of Kansas captures the way I’ve been feeling about the current political and cultural climate. Namely, that empty outrage is not a solution to anything. Now is the time to regroup, think, and actually consider the people around us and what we can do to make the world less terrible. It may not always sound like one, but this album is a call towards a different kind of action.

“Philosophy of the World” is the Best Album of 1969 — And Possibly Ever

Local radio station The Current just did a March Madness style tournament to determine the best album of 1969 as voted on by its listeners. Like anything determined by consensus, the end results of the bracket were boring and obvious — The Beatles’ Abbey Road knocked off Led Zeppelin II in the finals. Meanwhile, the actual best album of 1969 — The Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World — was unceremoniously eliminated in round one, picking up just eight percent of the vote against a CCR album that doesn’t even have “Fortunate Son” on it.

I wrote about the Shaggs a bit a couple years ago, recanting the oft-told story of this group of sheltered sisters that were enlisted to play music by their overbearing dad, who thought they were destined (as in literally, from a palm-reader) to be a popular rock band. Due to their lack of any training or possibly any awareness of music whatsoever, the results sounded bizarre and many people think it’s the worst album ever, while another contingent, led by Frank Zappa, think they were “better than the Beatles.” I am here to defend the latter argument and I will tell you why this is a better album than Abbey Road.

But first, because The Shaggs raise these sorts of questions for me, I think it’s worth considering what music really is on a basic level that we rarely even think about. It’s all a collection of sounds that, in and of themselves, are utterly meaningless. For I suppose brain science reasons, some sounds are more pleasurable for people than others — we don’t like the sound of nails on a chalkboard, but we tend to like the sound of a cat purring or other various ASMR things. Still, there is a clear subjectivity to the sound aspect of music and everyone has their own preferences that are hard to declare as wrong. If someone told you they really enjoyed the sound of nails on a chalkboard, you wouldn’t be able to convince them they were somehow incorrect for enjoying something you don’t like.

That is The Shaggs in this comparison, because their music undeniably does sound “bad” while The Beatles sound “good.” But I don’t think people ever really stop and think about how weird that is: that we have all decided that certain sounds are “better” than others. I always think this about those weird snobs who are really into musicians who display “technical ability.” The entire concept of developing mastery of an instrument is more about reaching a point where you conform to the arbitrary societal standards of what “good music” sounds like. So I push back a bit against the common belief that The Shaggs were bad at their instruments. I think they just play differently than we’re all used to.

The actual playing isn’t the only aspect of The Shaggs that is alien compared to other music. What really grabs me about Philosophy of the World is how radically different its intent and motivations are compared to all other recorded music. Think about why any artist forms a band, releases songs, or performs in a live setting. It’s always motivated by some sense of desiring something for themselves- they may want to make money, make friends, look impressive or cool, or make themselves feel better through self-expression. Or they may sincerely feel like they have a gift that needs to be shared with the world. Either way, there is an inherent self-indulgence to music, but it’s such an obvious part of performance that it often doesn’t even register to people.

But listening to Philosophy of the World is possibly hearing music in its purest form, made without any pretensions or aspirations. The Shaggs might be the only band to ever make an album with this mindset, though I suppose you could argue they were trying to impress their dad or had actual pop music ambitions. The word “authenticity” is thrown around a lot (by me included), usually to refer to albums that reduce the natural self-indulgence of music by having humble, genuine qualities through the music itself and/or the artist’s persona. No album could ever be more authentic than Philosophy of the World because it was made by people who didn’t know any better. And it’s so insane to hear an album without an ounce of posturing, or desire to impress the listener, that it’s almost impossible to comprehend it.

So this is an album that doesn’t sound like anything else ever made and might be the most pure, direct translation of childlike innocence and emotion into sound. People think of The Beatles as these great innovators, but all of their music was on the same basic pop music path that has been developed for centuries, and I’d argue most of what they get credit for is stuff that would have happened eventually anyways. Philosophy of the World is, unintentionally, a complete rethinking of what music even is. It raises questions and challenges preconceptions in a way that is completely unique. There has never been another album like it, and given the way society is now with the internet, I doubt it’s something that can ever be replicated.

People who think of themselves as music experts will always scoff at this album because it doesn’t fit their preconceived, constructed ideas of what a guitar or a drum beat should sound like. But people who actually understand music and art will appreciate that Philosophy of the World does things that no other album could ever do. Possibly its greatest strength is how it functions as a litmus test of sorts, an album that sparks ideas, conversation, and challenges entire notions about what music is and who can make it. As good as The Beatles were, they never did that for me.

Anemone Captures the Good Parts of the 60s on “Beat My Distance”

Every once in awhile, I come across an album that almost feels algorithmically generated to appeal to me. Anemone’s Beat My Distance combines krautrock, French pop, breezy psychedelia, and pretty much every other style of music I enjoy into a very pleasant package. It’s a little hard to tell if it’s actually “good” or if it just panders to me, but these days I don’t see much reason to draw a distinction. If I want to listen to it, it’s probably great.

The twangy guitars and bright synth parts, along with Chloe Soldevila’s airy vocals, make Beat My Distance sound like that idyllic version of the 60s that people have built up in their mind, where everyone walked around outside on sunny days and handed out flowers to each other while definitely not being racist. The overall focus on good vibes and lack of any rough edges can sometimes lead to the album feeling a bit naïve and absent of personality. These are flaws that I find easy to look past when the songs are this enjoyable to listen to, and this album provides a nice escape from the real world and its issues.

“Sunshine (Back to the Start”) is the clear highlight here; its bouncy rhythms, instrumental outro, and simple lyrics all add up to one of the more addictive songs of the year so far. Its template is followed by a lot of the songs on this album, which is all about mining familiar sounds and lyrical themes, creating a sense of nostalgia in the music. This could easily backfire (and many listeners might be turned off by the lack of originality), but Soldevila’s lack of cynicism and knowledge of exactly what her music is help me give this a high grade, even if she might have peeked at a neighbor’s paper a couple of times.

Potty Mouth Go Back to Basics on “SNAFU”

Listening to Potty Mouth’s new album, SNAFU, I’m reminded of that “Treehouse of Horror” episode of The Simpsons with Bart’s evil twin, Hugo, who is determined to be “too crazy for boys town” and “too much of a boy for crazy town.” In the last few years, the Massachusetts trio of Ally Einbinder, Victoria Mandanas, and Abby Weems have found themselves in an analogous predicament: they’re too pop for punk town and too punk for pop town.

This is their first full-length album since 2013’s Hellbent and first non-single release since 2015’s excellent self-titled EP, which raises some questions — with all due respect to the band’s music, it’s not like they’re in the studio laboring over a follow-up to Loveless here. In interviews now (and in tweets and song lyrics), they’ve discussed being courted by a major label, who burdened them with endless comparisons and expectations that left the band tangled in bureaucratic red tape without a sense of direction. Eventually, they parted ways with the major, and so now SNAFU finally surfaces on a friend’s label with not much PR or “momentum.”

For a band with such a faithful 90s aesthetic, it’s fitting that even the process of making the album sounds like something straight from 1994, with the scrappy indie band struggling between major label ambitions and staying true to themselves. While it was a winding road to get there, I’m glad they chose the latter. None of that self-doubt and struggle is heard in the sound of SNAFU, which brims with confidence and is the product of a band who now knows exactly who they are. It barrages the listener with one impossibly catchy chorus after another and its sugary rock sound is reminiscent of the best parts of The Go-Go’s and Veruca Salt. It might be my favorite pop album since Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION, and it makes me think the people who work for that major label have no idea what they’re doing — though, of course, I would never suggest that anyone working in the music industry is less than competent.

I’ve mentioned this before, but writing about music inevitably warps how you think about it, and sometimes I get into a mindset where I feel like any “great” album needs to come with like, a thesis statement and a bunch of cooked-in narrative. After all, you can’t just write “this has good songs that sound good” and expect anyone to care. Sometimes I think artists have internalized this from writers, too, and some seem almost afraid of writing songs that are too poppy or too frivolous.

So there is a gutsiness in how SNAFU totally owns its status as an enjoyable pop album. It doesn’t bury its massive hooks under a bunch of lo-fi gimmickry in an effort to seem hip. It doesn’t have overly complex lyrics that might distract from the songwriting. It hits that perfect sweet spot where the songs are so well-crafted but never sound like they’re trying too hard. It may not challenge listeners much or break new musical ground, but there is an appealing self-assuredness to these songs — the album sounds like a band being who they want to be instead of what others expect them to be.

That theme is explicitly stated on a couple of the songs that I have been listening to repeatedly over the last weekend. “Smash Hit” (initially released as a single in 2016) kisses off that major label with a chorus that is a list of meaningless adjectives that you can just imagine one of those record label guys breathlessly telling to the band as if he is providing them with the best career advice of all time. “Plastic Paradise” is a more general commentary on the fakeness of shopping advertisements that burden everyone with societal expectations; listening to it is about the closest anyone can get to time traveling to the mid-90s. Another highlight, “Fencewalker,” is slightly more contemporary, with some critical and relevant lyrics about people who don’t engage with the world around them. It was written with Gina Schock of The Go-Go’s, just in case Potty Mouth’s intentions on this album weren’t already clear.

While it lacks the edge that most associate with the genre, I think SNAFU is in the true original spirit of punk. It provides a blast of simplicity in a context where a lot of artists are trying to out-think each other and push the limits of complexity, sometimes to self-aggrandizing degrees. In that sense, it’s a really smart album in addition to being impossible to stop listening to.