The Last Lena Dunham Defense

More than any other celebrity, Lena Dunham has the ability to make people angry without even doing anything. This time, an old tweet from 2017 by The Hollywood Reporter was making the rounds yesterday, describing the story of how Dunham sold the pilot of Girls when she was 23 with a one-and-a-half page pitch that wasn’t particularly detailed. This is held as an example of the “white privilege” that critics constantly say allowed Dunham to have a career making work that is considered by these people to be “white mediocrity.” Of course, the tweet ignores a lot of the context around said pitch — namely, that Dunham had already made the film Tiny Furniture which showcased her talent and got her noticed by Judd Apatow, who sold her to the executives at HBO. The same critics will argue that Dunham had the resources available to make that film, so she still is just an undeserving product of white privilege.

This argument — and in general, anything involving Lena Dunham for some reason — typifies the corrosive, zero-sum nature of our current discourse surrounding art, privilege, and race. I watched every episode of Girls and can say with high certainty that Dunham is a gifted writer and actress. Yet people constantly rip on the show because of their perception that Dunham is a privileged mediocre white woman, a reading that seems more influenced by her sometimes embarrassing public persona than her work. In some respect, the proof of the quality of the show is in the pudding: Girls was a lightning-rod of debate and discussion when it was on the air and a clear success for HBO. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to love it, but to act like the creator and star of it is a talentless hack is ridiculous.

It would be easier to accept the constant trashing of the show if it seemed like any of its detractors understood what it was about. A lot of the “white mediocrity” argument comes from the fact that the show was centered around four white women who were different degrees of obnoxious, self-centered, and privileged. What is missed in the ungenerous readings of the show is that it was fully aware of that, and it effectively turned a mirror to white, entitled NYC brats by allowing the characters to be flawed and to show relatively little growth through the series. Dunham’s talents lied in her ability to create these characters you would gawk at and hope weren’t too much like yourself. One of the reasons I kept watching, even as someone clearly not in the target audience, is that it was fascinating to watch a show built around such an unlikable group of protagonists, and I got caught up in their stupid petty dramas (in general, I also just enjoy shows about assholes). This is a credit to Dunham’s writing as she really knew her characters, probably because they reflected parts of her personality that have since become public and caused her to be despised.

Girls also was one of the first shows I remember really being ripped for its lack of diversity due to its all-white main cast in the NYC setting. This criticism always bothered me, and it ties into my general skepticism of how the concept of “diversity” is used by people who critique media. While lack of diversity has been and continues to be an issue, the solution isn’t just jamming people of color into every show and having a perfectly harmonious racial cast in everything. Girls was a show about well-off white people and their selfish, shallow lifestyles, and so it made perfect sense that the characters didn’t interface with many minorities. The depiction of these people should not be mistaken as an endorsement of them, but this is now a common mistake being made by everyone across all mediums.

Given the success of the show, its critical acclaim, and the fact that I (one of the most knowledgeable arts critics of our times) like it, I can only laugh at claims of Dunham having no talent, because they have no credibility and show profound ignorance. The more justifiable argument against Dunham is that she never would have gotten a chance to make Girls if she wasn’t a white woman with Hollywood connections. That’s not a point I’ll even really argue against. But because everything has to lack nuance and be one extreme or the other, many are mistaking Dunham’s luck and privilege with the complete absence of skill. Here’s a wild idea (really, bear with me on this, because it will blow your mind): maybe people can have connections, and succeed through good fortune, and still be worthwhile artists whose voices are worth listening to.

That intersection of luck, privilege, and talent describes how pretty much every successful artist “makes it” in this world. So why does it seem like Dunham is disproportionately singled out for benefiting from the same circumstances that practically all other artists do? This is where I may humbly suggest that it’s due to her being an outspoken woman, one who maybe doesn’t have the most “correct” politics and who doesn’t look like other celebrities. Throughout her career, I’ve witnessed her be held to a totally different standard from everyone else and viewed with constant undeserved skepticism, and now, years after Girls has left the air, she is still a constant punchline for white mediocrity. For most, I suspect the reason they hate her is jealousy, and it’s easy for people to tell themselves that they could have been Lena Dunham with the right breaks rather than accept the reality of their own lack of specialness and talent. Similarly, it’s easier to think of Dunham as a bad, privileged person instead of considering the possibility that you would have made all of the same decisions if put in her circumstances.

All of this is the problem when art starts being viewed through this extremely polarized political lens. Dunham doesn’t even have particularly problematic politics (as far as I can tell, she is like a normal democrat), but because Girls wasn’t this perfect, racially diverse show and studied the lives of oblivious white people, it’s now considered to be garbage. Increasingly, I see people interpreting art this way, analyzing everything through their own solipsistic bad-faith political readings of the material and scoffing if it doesn’t align with their ideal world view. This is intellectually lazy, idiotic behavior, and it causes worthwhile shows like Girls to be misunderstood and mocked, probably by people who never watched it. What we should strive for is recognizing the wealth and opportunity advantages artists like Dunham have while still appreciating the value of their art on its own merit.

“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.

“How You Remind Me” is a Perfect Song

For as long as I’ve been interested in music, Nickelback have been a punching bag for people who want to feel superior in their taste to others. Part of this makes sense: Nickelback are a very bad band who make atrocious music that deserves to be mocked at every turn, yet are irritatingly popular, making them an easy target and emblematic of Everything That is Wrong With Music. On the other hand, I started to almost feel bad for Chad Kroeger and co., who have never really professed to being more than a dumb rock band that makes big loud noises for people who don’t really want to engage with music on a deeply intellectual level.

The way I see it, there are a lot of awful bands deserving of mockery out there, and Nickelback’s crimes against music don’t really rate to me. It’s easy for me to just not pay attention to Nickelback, but there are bands who I don’t think are much better who are often shoved in my face as an example of “real music.” One of these is The Black Keys, and their drummer Patrick Carney went off on Nickelback in a Rolling Stone story a couple years ago:

Rock & roll is dying because people became OK with Nickelback being the biggest band in the world… So they became OK with the idea that the biggest rock band in the world is always going to be shit – therefore you should never try to be the biggest rock band in the world. Fuck that! Rock & roll is the music I feel the most passionately about, and I don’t like to see it fucking ruined and spoon-fed down our throats in this watered-down, post-grunge crap, horrendous shit. When people start lumping us into that kind of shit, it’s like, ‘Fuck you,’ honestly.

You can hear the superiority and condescension coming from this guy whose band is a fourth-rate White Stripes knockoff. The Black Keys have every bit of Nickelback’s cynicism and lack of originality while sounding even worse. Every song is like one garbage guitar riff played 100 times in a row. And yet he has the temerity to classify his band as “real rock and roll” — this is what is worthy of scorn, not Nickelback minding their own business with their crummy rock music (thanks for your contributions to the Bojack Horseman soundtrack, though).

He does make a decent point about post-grunge, which is like the Mariana Trench of music — it goes lower than humans can possibly fathom, and at the very bottom there are hideous things that we can’t even comprehend (Hinder’s “Lips of an Angel” comes to mind). But within this foul genre of music, Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” holds up as a landmark work that is perfection of a specific aesthetic, much in the way that Loveless and Pet Sounds are.

The style of “How You Remind Me” happens to be one that I don’t really enjoy — this grunty, faux-masculine, whiny brand of rock where every element of the music sounds like it’s been run through a garbage disposal. I prefer listening to women sing about dreams. At the same time, I’m a man who can appreciate the very best of a specific thing, and “How You Remind Me” is indisputably Nickelback’s magnum opus and the high-point of this type of rock music.  While the rest of post-grunge is truly offensive and makes one wonder how centuries of human evolution reached this point, “How You Remind Me” reaches the level of being borderline tolerable.

“How You Remind Me,” is, at its core, a song about not wanting to be reminded of who you really are. Its lyrics are a key part of its success because of their relatability: who among us hasn’t cut it as a wise man or as a poor man stealing? Kroeger’s goat-like voice conveys a man who has reached rock bottom and has nothing left to lose. The repeated lyric, “are we having fun yet?,” asks a potent question to the listener, who is left to decide for themselves whether or not Kroeger is, in fact, having fun yet. I personally think he isn’t, but the beauty of “How You Remind Me” is in its ambiguity.

The song’s sound is a bracing mix of many varied influences: Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder, and also Pearl Jam. It’s loud in a way that is typically associated with rock music, but the guitar sound lacks any kind of edge or meaning. This emptiness is, intentionally or unintentionally, a vital part of its status as the definitive crappy adolescent post-grunge song. It captures a certain angsty youthful state where you have extreme feelings and frustrations that feel real in the moment but are really just idiotic and pointless. It spawned many imitators, but none were ever able to do it this well, partly because Nickelback have an undeniable ability to craft a hook or they never would have gotten on the radio.

Am I saying that “How You Remind Me” is the greatest song of all time? Of course not. I think The Beatles have a few songs that are better, and others would point to songs by The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Mozart, etc. But I maintain that it is a perfect song in the sense that it achieves everything it is trying to do. It has a certain bleakness and impotence that makes it the quintessential post-grunge song, ahead of even Scott Stapp’s impressive body of work. I don’t quite classify it as “so bad it’s good” — more like it’s so good at being bad.