Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Case Against the Eagles

Many relationships in life are conflicted, but none anywhere is more so than my own to the Eagles. No, not the Philadelphia Eagles (though that too is complicated) or bald eagles (for whom I experience a patriot’s unnuanced love). I’m talking about the Eagles from Los Angeles—the most successful country-rock band ever to aggressively straddle the globe.

They were the talented rookie athlete who never shut up. They were the cockiest commingling of self-styled swinging rods that ever smugly rocked and countried their way to the top. Bad men. Surly. They made a federal case over whether you called them the Eagles or just Eagles because they said it was just Eagles. They were led by the dueling macho songwriters Don Henley and Glenn Frey 

Their songs are, let’s face it, incredible. Or be difficult and don’t concede that point. It doesn’t matter, really. What matters is that you know them: “One of These Nights,” “Desperado,” “New Kid in Town,” friggin’ “Hotel California.” During my suburban Long Island upbringing, their smooth sounds were the other thing you heard besides Billy Joel at any given barbecue. As adults drank beer and children capered in pools, the Eagles’ soft rock provided uneasy companionship. All the harmonies, honky-tonk men, and scarlet women made me intuitively uncomfortable. But the songs were burned into my memory forever.

Fifty years after the Eagles’ first release, they continue to exert a monolithic familiarity. For one thing, their infuriatingly precise mix of rock and roots essentially created the template for contemporary country music radio, with its brick-walled story songs and note-perfect ripping solos. Secondly, they have a way of turning up in the strangest contexts. A couple generations now know them as the Dude’s most hated band in The Big Lebowski. Millennials might have first heard of “Hotel California” when emergent supernova Frank Ocean sampled it on Nostalgia, Ultra in 2011, a flattering occurrence to which Don Henley responded by referring to the culture-shifting Ocean as “a talentless little prick.”

That episode was not a discrete phenomenon—this has always been Henley and Frey’s modus operandi. They are, and have always been, dedicatedly off-putting.

Why are the Eagles the most unloved band to ever sell a hundred million records? Where and when did all of this start and is there any chance for this cognitive dissonance to be resolved?

In an attempt to finally achieve convergence, I conscripted a panel of experts that included radio legend and rock historian Tom Scharpling, treasured cultural critic Rob Sheffield, and celebrated singer-songwriter Will Sheff to reexamine the case against the Eagles 50 years after they first thrust their way into the mainstream. These hand-picked panel members are all music enthusiasts who consume music at a pace roughly equivalent to an average 18-wheel driver on trucker speed. Life in the fast lane. Here are the findings and verdict.

Charge No. 1: The Dickishness

The Eagles were a machine built on umbrage and limitless material gain. Unlike many bands who achieve dickishness in escalating proportion to their success, the Eagles seemingly needed no prompting. Almost immediately their grievances were countless. They were mad at the press, their label, their publicists, concert promoters, fellow musicians, and one another. Their anger is a feature, not a bug. Punk rock never knew such pugnaciousness.

A representative example: The group despised their first producer, Glyn Johns—legendary for his work with the Who and the Stones—whom they blamed for being too bossy. Not a partier, Johns informally banned drugs from the studio, meaning that “we’d have to sneak off to the bathroom to do dope,” according to Henley. And sure, that must have been a nuisance for the Eagles. But this was the band’s first time in the studio and Johns needed their full attention. The Eagles’ self-titled debut ultimately yielded the standards “Witchy Woman” and “Take It Easy,” and set a template for their cultural contributions. The band found the experience unhappy, and decades later, Glenn Frey would continue to complain that his vocal on “Peaceful Easy Feeling” was out of tune.

Tom Scharpling advances this theory about their paper-thin skin: “I think they knew the rap on them the whole time is that they’re these pretty boys who are trading in the mythologies of country music and Americana or whatever you want to call it, but they’re just not legit,” he says. “That crushing insecurity is why they’re dicks.”

An authenticity gap plagued the Eagles from the outset. The legendary Gram Parsons, whose sound the band slavishly aped, called them “bubblegum” in an interview shortly before his tragic death in 1973.

“They’re not actual country music people! They’re not cowboys,” Scharpling says. “They were just kinda handsome guys who saw an opportunity to smash a couple genres together with an eye toward the charts. The Eagles could confidently play with their shirts off. They were the shirtless Byrds!”

Will Sheff, whose forensic folk-rock character studies sound something like Townes Van Zandt by way of Buffalo Springfield, sees the tendency toward bullying as innate to their temperament. “I always thought of the Eagles as the high school jocks who joined bands because they thought they could get laid or something,” he says. “The dudes who are gonna bust into band practice and be like, ‘You fucking loser!’ and push you over and grab your guitar.” (...)

Rob Sheffield has always been annoyed by this: “At least 90 percent of Eagles’ songs are telling a woman, ‘You think you’re really cool but you’re not, and I’m going to explain why by making a bunch of points that certainly never occurred to you before.’”

This bothers me, too. And it’s weird because as a lady, I’m perfectly happy listening to AC/DC or the Stones or whatever, who have songs in which women are more or less constantly objectified and variously badgered. In the case of those groups, there is always the idea that on some level they recognize that the joke is ultimately on them. Not so with Henley and Frey. Their unctuousness and self-pitying solipsism is simply one more insult than I can endure.

Sheffield finds “Lyin’ Eyes” risible: “That song really, really bugs the shit out of me. The way it begins, like, ‘City girls just seem to find out early how to open doors with just a smile.’ It’s like, ‘Excuse me Glenn Frey, how the fuck do you open doors? Is it your brilliance?’”

It’s similar to a shitty boyfriend going into forensic detail about how they were always utterly blameless in everything that happened when the break-up occurred, only this time with harmonies.

“For the Eagles, being arrayed against women is an ethic in itself. There’s no wit, and you don’t feel like they’re trying for wit and failing at it,” Sheffield says. “A song like ‘Already Gone’ is monstrously irritating. Because the singer is so incredibly proud of himself for dumping his girlfriend, which honestly isn’t that huge an achievement, you know?”

Sheff paints a nightmare scenario of preordained entitlement meeting with an endless sea of approbation: “When you’ve had that much success, and you’re a man of that generation and sort of a dick to begin with, and literally millions of people are reinforcing your self-conception as a demigod, you’re probably going to end up the official band of toxic boomer masculinity.”

by Elizabeth Nelson, The Ringer | Read more:
Image: Getty Images/Ringer illustration

How TurboTax Tricks You Into Paying to File Your Taxes

Did you know that if you make less than $66,000 a year, you can prepare and file your taxes for free?

No? That’s no accident. Companies that make tax preparation software, like Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, would rather you didn’t know.

Intuit and other tax software companies have spent millions lobbying to make sure that the IRS doesn’t offer its own tax preparation and filing service. In exchange, the companies have entered into an agreement with the IRS to offer a “Free File” product to most Americans — but good luck finding it.

Here’s what happened when we went looking.

Our first stop was Google. We searched for “irs free file taxes.”

And we thought we found what we were looking for: Ads from TurboTax and others directing us to free products.

The first link looked promising. It contained the word “free” five times! We clicked and were relieved to see that filing for free was guaranteed.

We started the process by creating the profile of a TaskRabbit house cleaner who took in $29,000. We entered extensive personal information. TurboTax asked us to click through more than a dozen questions and prompts about our finances.

After all of that, only then did we get the bad news: TurboTax revealed this wasn’t going to be free at all. Turns out the house cleaner didn’t qualify because he is a independent contractor. The charge? $119.99.

Then we tried with a second scenario. We went back to and clicked on “FREE Guaranteed.” This time, we went through the process as a Walgreens cashier without health insurance, entering personal information and giving the company lots of sensitive data.

Again, TurboTax told us we had to pay — this time because there’s an extra form if you don’t have insurance. The charge? $59.99.

But wait. Are the house cleaner and the cashier not allowed to prepare and file their taxes for free because of their particular tax situations? No! According to the agreement between the IRS and the companies, anyone who makes less than $66,000 can prepare and file their taxes for free.

So how did we end up with a product that would make us pay?

We took a close look at the source code of the TurboTax website and noticed something strange. Even though we clicked on the “FREE Guaranteed” option and met all the requirements to file for free, the company had tagged us as a potential paying customer.

In the source code, TurboTax had branded us as “NONFFA.” That stands for “Non Free File Alliance.” In other words, we were not on track to file for free after all. (...)

It’s not exactly a secret that this Free File program isn’t working well. The national taxpayer advocate recently said it “is failing to achieve its objectives and should be substantially improved or eliminated.” The IRS has been criticized for failing to oversee the program and the number of people using Free File has dropped by millions since it peaked in 2005.

Consumer groups have long argued that the IRS should offer its own free, online tax preparation and filing, as many other countries do.

But Congress is now moving to put the Free File program into law, including its restriction on the IRS creating its own free service. We wrote about that earlier this month and the opposition to this provision by freshman Democratic Reps. Katie Hill, Katie Porter, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others. The House ultimately passed the bipartisan Taxpayer First Act, which also contains some provisions that consumer advocates support, such as restrictions on private debt collection of unpaid taxes.

Now the Senate is considering the bill. Its sponsors have argued that it doesn’t tie the IRS’ hands, but outside legal experts we’ve spoken to disagree. The text in the bill codifying the Free File program has long been sought by lobbyists for Intuit.

by Justin Elliott and Lucas Waldron, ProPublica | Read more:
Image: Google
[ed. An annual affair. Nothing changes.]

Obscura No More

Obscura No More. How photography rose from the margins of the art world to occupy its vital center (American Scholar).
Image: Revenge of the Goldfish by Sandy Skoglund, 1981

The G.O.P.'s Plot Against Our Democracy

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away

“American Pie”

I didn’t want to write again about the House Republicans ousting Liz Cheney from their leadership for calling out Donald Trump’s Big Lie. I was going to make this my week for happy news. But to write about anything else on the verge of Trump’s G.O.P. moving to formally freeze out Cheney would be like writing a column about the weather the day after Watergate exploded or about Ford Theater’s architecture after Lincoln was shot. This is a big moment in American history.

One of America’s two major parties is about to make embracing a huge lie about the integrity of our elections — the core engine of our democracy — a litmus test for leadership in that party, if not future candidacy at the local, state and national levels.

In effect, the Trump G.O.P. has declared that winning the next elections for the House, Senate and presidency is so crucial — and Trump’s ability to energize its base so irreplaceable — that it justifies both accepting his Big Lie about the 2020 election and leveraging that lie to impose new voter-suppression laws and changes in the rules of who can certify elections in order to lock in minority rule for Republicans if need be.

It is hard to accept that this is happening in today’s America, but it is.

If House Republicans follow through on their plan to replace Cheney, it will not constitute the end of American democracy as we’ve known it, but there is a real possibility we’ll look back on May 12, 2021, as the beginning of the end — unless enough principled Republicans can be persuaded to engineer an immediate, radical course correction in their party.

If someone tried a dishonest power play at the P.T.A. of your child’s school like the one in the House, you’d be on the phone in a flash, organizing the other parents to immediately denounce and stop it. If you read about something like this happening in another pillar of democracy, like Britain or France, you’d be sick to your stomach and feel like the world was a little less safe. If you heard that a banana republic dictator had forced such a Big Lie on his sham parliament, you’d want to picket his embassy in Washington.

But this is us — today, right now. And I fear that we’ve so defined down political deviance in the Trump years that we’ve lost the appropriate, drop-everything, Defcon 1, man-the-battle-stations sense of alarm that should greet the G.O.P. crossing such a redline.

“It just bothers me that you have to swear fealty to the ‘Dear Leader’ or you get kicked out of the party,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a moderate Republican, said Sunday on “Meet the Press.” “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

But it doesn’t end there. We’re witnessing a daylight mugging of our democracy — and I am not talking only about the voter-suppression measures being passed by Republican-controlled legislatures in swing states.

There are also the new laws to enable Republican legislatures to legally manipulate the administration and counting of the votes in their states. Election expert Rick Hasen explained it all in an essay in this newspaper last month: “At stake is something I never expected to worry about in the United States: the integrity of the vote count. The danger of manipulated election results looms.”

We’re talking about new regulations like the Georgia law that removed the secretary of state from decision-making power on the State Election Board, clearly aimed to curb the powers of the current secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, after he rejected Trump’s request that he “find” 11,780 votes to undo Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia. We’re talking about Arizona’s Republican-led State Senate hiring a company owned by an advocate of the “Stop the Steal” movement to examine the November ballots from Maricopa County. And much more.

According to a new report by Protect Democracy, Law Forward and the States United Democracy Center, “Across the country, state legislators are proposing bills that would give partisan state legislators greater control over elections while hamstringing experienced state and local election administrators who have traditionally run our voting systems. …

“Many of the bills would make elections more difficult to administer or even unworkable; make it more difficult to finalize election results; allow for election interference and manipulation by hyperpartisan actors; and, in the worst cases, allow state legislatures to overturn the will of the voters and precipitate a democracy crisis.”

Had these bills been in place in 2020, it added, “they would have … raised the prospect that the outcome of the election would have been contrary to the popular vote.”

As Stanford University democracy expert Larry Diamond summed it all up to me, while we’re focusing on Liz Cheney and the 2020 elections, Trump’s minions at the state level “are focused on giving themselves the power to legally get away with in 2024 what the courts would not let them get away with in 2020.”

You tell me how American democracy will ever be the same again and how these people can be trusted to cede power the next time they win the White House.

by Thomas L. Friedman, NY Times |  Read more:
Image:Damon Winter/The New York Times
[ed. Bring the popcorn. Cheney gets no sympathy from me, she's as deranged as her dad. And it's not like she's being led to a firing squad, just loss of a leadership position. Why the pearl clutching now?  The Republican party has been a real threat to America for decades. Anyone who didn't realize that just wasn't paying attention. At least they're more open about it now. I guess that's progress. See also: In Liz Cheney vs. Donald Trump, Guess Who Won (NYT).]

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Roger Brown (American, 1941-1997), Exasperated Hand, c.1980s

The American Road Song Is Changing with the Climate

In the summer of 1998, I packed my rusted silver Honda Accord with a suitcase full of clothes and a stack of CDs and started the three-hour drive from Topeka, Kansas, to my new college dorm. It was my first time leaving home on my own, and I itched to experience life beyond the world of my childhood. As I pulled out of the driveway, I slipped Tom Petty’s Wildflowers into the CD player and let his nasally voice carry me toward the future: “It’s time to move on / it’s time to get goin’ / what lies ahead I have no way of knowin’.” Like most songs about life on the road, Petty’s “Time to Move On” evokes a dual sense of escapism and possibility—the idea that what lies ahead must be better, or at least more interesting, than whatever the narrator felt the need to run away from. Rhythmically, it tumbles forward at a steady pace like four tires on a highway. And, as with most songs about uppin’ and leavin’ and rollin’ on, I couldn’t get enough of it. [ed. first post on this blog.]

My love of road songs comes from my parents, who would play their favorite artists—Jackson Browne, Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen—on cassette tapes every time we piled into the family car. Those songs glamorized driving all night down old state highways as the ultimate act of individualistic freedom. They also hinted at the awesomeness of the great unknown. That’s how road songs got their hooks into me, a landlocked kid in Kansas who almost always preferred ’90s Brit-pop and hip-hop, but who also felt in my gut the songs’ ethos to get out and see the world.

After buying that Honda at the age of seventeen—a culmination of two years’ worth of odd jobs and a loan from my dad—I drove it to every corner of my rectangular home state, rarely with a specific destination in mind. The goal was simply to go. Sometimes friends would ride with me. We’d drive one hundred miles out of town, Springsteen blaring, and park by a field of wheat, where we’d wait for the sun to set. When the stars came out, we’d lie on the car hood and gaze into the universe, cigarettes burning between our fingers.

Twenty years later, this girl of the road has become a woman of New York City. I no longer own a car—though I never outgrew my love of driving—but I rent them on the regular. In December 2020, with the pandemic still limiting long-distance travel, the spouse and I were trying to plan a weekend trip to the nearby Catskills, but I kept getting distracted by the road patterns in a map of upstate New York spread out on the table before me. I recently read that more than four million miles of public roads crisscross the country, with thirty-two thousand more miles being added every year.

All those roads make car travel easier, but they threaten the wellbeing of creatures living within proximity, severing ecosystems by inhibiting the movement of wildlife. During the winter months, salt used to deice roads leaks into underground water, rendering it too foul for consumption by the animals who rely on it for survival. Then there’s the problem of carbon pollution. Every gallon of gas burned for fuel produces twenty pounds of carbon dioxide. Even over a single weekend, that adds up.

I considered the ecological cost of driving just three hours north as songs by Muddy Waters and David Byrne, both part of the road-song playlist I made for this trip, played in the background. To clear my head, I pulled out a box of old photographs, put it on the table, and searched for the ones from that first drive to college. I hadn’t looked at them in years. I remembered the road stretching out before me—Route 69, its signage frequently stolen by horny Kansas teenagers—and the golden fields that lined each shoulder. But, squinting closely, I noticed for the first time that the fields contained more than just wheat. Rising above the waving grain were giant oil pumpjacks, their metal horse-like heads pointing downward as if about to drink from a well. Startled, I dropped the photos and turned off the music.

The American road song has a long and complex history. At the turn of the twentieth century, Black musicians from the South migrated to cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, and wrote songs about the struggle of living in the Jim Crow era and their hopes for finding a better life up north. The genre was popularized by blues artists like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, from whom the first rock and roll superstars, like Chuck Berry, borrowed the road trope (and the chord progressions) and molded it into a celebration of car culture. Berry’s “Maybellene,” Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” The Beach Boys’ “409”—the radio of the 1950s and ’60s thumped with ditties about teenage rebels and fantasy women driving sports cars. 

Early rock’s obsession with cars coincided with a larger trend in American culture: the romanticization of the road trip. The 1950s brought the country’s first interstate system and, along with it, an endless stream of written accounts, usually by white men, of life on the road. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road hit shelves in 1957, Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley came out in 1962, and Peter S. Beagle (who wrote The Last Unicorn) published his scooter travelogue, I See By My Outfit, in 1964. The road trip was the newest incarnation of an old American myth about how the conquering of land—by car or by wagon—is an act of manifest destiny.

But like that myth, the road trip has historically excluded, displaced, and even punished racialized people. For them, travel didn’t always have the same connotations of leisure or self-actualization—like the Great Migration, during which 6.6 million Black people left the segregated rural South. Stops at gas stations and cafés could prove dangerous if the establishments were owned by racists. These complexities of road life weren’t always accounted for in American music.

The 1970s ushered in a new era of music and car culture. The oil crisis caused gas prices to surge, the economy to stagnate, and American cars to shrink in size. With this financial hardship came a corresponding dip in Americans’ interest in driving. The Ford Motor Company, the country’s largest car manufacturer, produced 780,000 fewer cars in 1975 than it had in 1973. The music of the era reflected these changes in sometimes surprising ways. Consider the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’,” from their 1970 album American Beauty. In an unexpected reversal of road-song tropes, the singer is ready to give up the road for staying home with his family: “You’re sick of hangin’ around and you’d like to travel / Get tired of travelin’, you want to settle down.” Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 anthem to blue-collar workers, “Born to Run,” reflects the cratering economy with lines like “The highways jammed with broken heroes / On a last-chance power drive / Everybody’s out on the run tonight / But there’s no place left to hide.” And Jackson Browne’s pointedly titled 1977 hit, “Running on Empty,” depicts the road not as an exciting means of self-discovery but rather a solemn metaphor for time passing: “In ’69 I was twenty-one and I called the road my own / I don’t know when that road turned into the road I’m on.”

The end of the decade brought resolution to the oil crisis, but it was replaced by a more pressing concern: the climate crisis. In the early 1980s, scientists such as Hans Oeschger, Willi Dansgaard, and James Hansen published studies that predicted that North America would experience increased wildfires and stronger hurricanes as early as the 2010s—and that much of this was humanity’s fault. Carbon emissions, they said—mostly produced by the planet’s wealthiest nations—were warming the planet and altering the climate.

The growing anxiety of the period was mirrored by popular music. The Talking Heads may not have been thinking about climate change when they released “Road to Nowhere” in 1985, but the song makes the relevant point that humans are good at progress but aren’t great at taking stock of our actions: “Well, we know where we’re goin’ / But we don’t know where we’ve been / And we know what we’re knowin’ / But we can’t say what we’ve seen.” When Byrne sings the lines “And the future is certain / Give us time to work it out,” the refrain of the chorus undercuts his assuredness: “We’re on a road to nowhere.” With its focus on the collective, the lyrics depart from the road-song tropes of decades prior. It’s not just a single driver who’s lost direction and seeks a new destination—it’s an entire population.

In 1988, just three years after the song reached number twenty-five on the Billboard charts, James Hansen gave his watershed testimony to Congress, popularizing the phrase “global warming” and alerting the public to the dangers of climate change. That same year, Tracy Chapman released her acoustic ballad “Fast Car,” which is sung from the perspective of a woman trying to escape the cycle of poverty. It builds on the road songs of the past by focusing on an individual’s dreams, but at the same time, it lacks the simplistic optimism of the genre’s earlier days. Rather than carry her closer to freedom, each length of the narrator’s journey introduces new forms of heartbreak. The song is a poignant reminder that some journeys end at destinations you had hoped to avoid.

by Amy Brady, Catapult |  Read more:
Image: Dan Gold/Unsplash

She Walked Out of a Crashing Plane and Pulled the Parachute

Yes but they were very old anyway.

We heard quite a lot of that over the past year. A sort of generational shrug. It’s human nature of course to treat the passing of the elderly differently than the death of the young. We have to think that way or else the existential horror of all of this would paralyze us. But death is death is death in the end.

Indeed the majority of deaths from Covid in America — 581,000 in total if you haven’t checked in a while — were in fact people over the age of 75 which I guess means that they “didn’t count.” What today’s essay asks is what if even a very old human being dying needlessly during a pandemic is still a human being who died needlessly during a pandemic? (...)

She walked out of a crashing plane into the air and pulled the parachute

Anita lay in the hospital and the rest of us leaned forward into the group Zoom call from our five different homes. A nurse held the screen shakily, badly, switching between “speaker” mode and “grid” mode before settling on one, so that we saw both Anita there in bed, wild-haired, and a doctor next to her, who, because of the sheer volume of Covid patients at the hospital, was speaking to all of us and to Anita very rapidly, delivering the news that she was to be taken off oxygen soon if, and this was very likely he said, her lungs did not react sufficiently positively that night to the experimental medication. In the moment I had the sense that she had anomalously gotten this experimental medication. That she ordinarily wouldn’t have gotten it because of her age, her proximity to death. Something idiotic came to me then, while I was searching for the reason that she had gotten this drug: that somehow the force of our love, and my dad’s love in particular, must have been conveyed to the doctors. That the debt incurred by love and care, even at a distance, was paid off, in kind, by others who happened to be caring for her.

In reality, I think she got the drug because it was expensive and my family decided we could afford it. That was the equation.

I remembered later that she had looked at the doctor after he said she would likely die—all of us were just hearing this for the first time—and, for lack of anything else to say, saying this, I think, not to appease him exactly, but just to say something, she said “that’s fair.” But she did not believe it. I know she didn’t believe it. The situation was the same combination of unfathomable and terrifying as a plane crash. Although she’d actually survived one of those when she was younger.

In part because her death was horrific in the way of all of these Covid deaths, we were in a particular kind of shock about what happened. How Anita could go from testing positive and being cheerfully asymptomatic for two weeks (“I actually feel better than I did before!”) to the rapid and indescribable deterioration.

She was infected around Christmas by a woman who was giving her a bath. After her Covid diagnosis her necessary helpers could no longer come inside her house. Now alone, she fell one day at the threshold of her front door attempting to reach the meal her friend had left outside. A group of girls passing by saw her lying there attempting to shout for help, and managed to get her her phone, and then left her. She somehow called 911 and the paramedics came and tried to take her to the hospital, but she refused, feeling that she did not want to end up there under nearly any circumstances. Here, in Central New York, I spent almost ten hours on the phone attempting to find someone in San Diego County, which was beyond “oversaturated” at the time with Covid (in nearby LA they ended up lifting air pollution regulations soon after this, to make room for the “demand” for cremations) to safely enter her house and help her eat and go about her day. The day after I found someone I called her to see how she was doing and heard an odd hitch between every few words she uttered, and registered a fatigue and also an odd anxiety behind her voice. Her doctor, agreeing that it was best to avoid going to a hospital if at all possible, made Anita an appointment at an Urgent Care, to which she painstakingly schlepped, and was then turned away from because she was ninety-four, Covid-positive, and had a DNR. Too old to save.

I have a message from her on my phone from around this time. At this point she was alone and just starting to show symptoms. She said my name over and over into the phone, somehow thinking I was there and just cruelly staying silent. The way she said my name was odd. It was extra enunciative, the “oo” at the center of the “Lucy” elongated, as if she was trying on a new language and wanting to get it right.

“Lucy has always liked the plane crash story,” she said to everyone, with tangible annoyance, during the first of our three Zoom calls to the hospital, in which we were tentatively, disbelievingly saying both hello and goodbye at once. Even then I couldn’t stop watching myself on the screen. Zoom makes it impossible to train your eyes for very long elsewhere: there you are, always, reacting, your mouth opening wide, your eyes squinting, your everything on display in ways familiar to anyone else but new to you. I wore a bright red shirt because I had worried she wouldn’t be able to see me otherwise.

It was true, I had been drawn to the story over the years, often asking for more detail that she didn’t want to share. She was annoyed, I could tell. She was annoyed not just about having to talk about the story, but also by my very interest in it. It was an anecdote she hated, because it was understandably more traumatic for her to retell than anything else, and yes, it was so obviously, so blatantly interesting. It was the story about her that most people would find impressive, for the nerve she had displayed, but also for the situation in which she had found herself.

She walked out of a crashing plane into the air and pulled the parachute. Everything between her drop and her landing in some tall pine tree in the Eastern zone of Germany I still have to imagine for myself. She refused, always, to describe it in any real detail. I’ve imagined it many times, the flipping of her stomach as she tumbled through cold air so forceful it might have felt like thick water. But my uncle had brought it up, not me, during an excruciating, halting, emotional, numbed, disbelieving goodbye over Zoom.

She had been the only passenger to choose to evacuate.

The newspaper clipping about the incident that I found, rummaging through her things while she napped downstairs one day, called her “Caterpillar Schiller.” She was thankful, she had said in a quote under a photo, that she had worn slacks that day. The photo showed her stoic, the wind pushing her hair away from her young face. Going through her things a year ago—two years ago?—I found other photos: the crashed plane (no fatalities) surrounded by stunned German youth, Anita sleeping deeply on a couch after the rescue, covered in a blanket. The flight the next day, she told me sharply once, conveying that she would say no more than this, was scarier to her than the crashing plane the day before.

I keep thinking about a tweet from probably three or four years ago. The man who wrote it was on a creative writing program’s admissions committee. He wrote, basically, that he couldn’t believe how many applicants to this program were writing personal essays about their dear, departed grandmothers. The implication was that all these people were using their grandmothers’ deaths as necessary traumatic cruxes for their resultant boring, overly emotional essays. Everyone old dies, basically, and therefore, because this is universal, there’s nothing special about the individual experience. It can’t be made into good art. That was the logic. A few days after he wrote it, the tweet disappeared. He was probably told to take it down; it could have had a deleterious (though small) effect on the income on the University where we worked, he as a tenured professor of English, me as a grad student. With one fewer admissions essay about a dead grandmother, there might be one less chunky little application fee paid.

But more largely, I think, the tweet, while callous, exposed something uncomfortable that those “in charge” didn’t want to be attached to: that the old have ceased to matter, if they ever did at all. That we have housed them, millions of them, far away from where we can see them, on purpose sometimes, out of discomfort and pain. Even pre-pandemic, we were triaging, I guess. But it was impolite to say.

Now I wonder what will happen in the wake of this flood of elder death—no, the deaths of so many, so many people who were not meant to die this way, in agony and solitude, because of basic governmental neglect. Will the elderly’s deaths be viewed differently than they were before?

by Lucy Schiller, Welcome to Hell World |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

On Some Saturday, After All of This

Hear ye! Hear ye! I am here
to holler that the grass
that cradles my back and tickles my calves
is bright and hot
from the sun, which after being gone 
for several days to make way 
for the ceremonial procession of summer 
rain clouds, has returned, adorned 
in such resplendent yellows 
that my cheeks hum with warmth 
and the hairs on my forearms, 
captivated by the train of the sun’s dress, 
cannot help but stand at attention 
much like the couple to my left 
who are tossing a frisbee between each other, 
who laugh when it sails into a crowd 
of feeding pigeons, scattering them to the wind, 
their wings the thrumming sound 
of a thousand leaflets thrown into a city square 
declaring that the war is over! the war is over!
the purplegreen plume of their necks 
caught in the light, 
shimmering against the sky-blue sky 
like a school of flying fish 
before eventually circling back to the crumbs 
of bread laid out for them 
by the old man in plaid 
sitting on a bench, who, 
after a winter he was sure would claim him, 
after a winter that claimed so many of us, 
revels in the small task of feeding 
these eager birds, revels in their lively squabble, 
for the way it reminds him of the liveliness 
still fluttering in his chest.

And I am here, laying in this park, 
while my phone cycles through a playlist 
I made for this very occasion 
because I am waiting for my friend, 
whom I haven’t seen in weeks, 
who is always late, 
which I don’t mind really 
because, like I said, 
I am here in the park and amidst 
such warmth and color 
and far-off squeals of giddy children 
there is little room for sourness, 
little room for anything other than a vibrating joy, 
and when she arrives, 
pulling her bike alongside her, 
brandishing a smile I have not seen 
unobscured by cloth in who knows how long, 
it takes everything in me not to weep, 
not to burst into a million dandelion seedlings 
dancing on the breeze, all their held wishes granted, 
so I hug her, tight enough to keep my body together, 
clumsy enough to get her hair in my mouth, 
and when was the last time I had someone else’s 
hair in my mouth? When was the last time 
there was a day this good?

by Johnny Teklit, Catapult |  Read more:
After Ross Gay

The Tattered Histories of Possible Future Ambassadors

On April 20, President Joe Biden remarked that the police murder of George Floyd “ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see the systemic racism” in American policing, and he called for action at all levels of government “to ensure that Black and brown people or anyone… [doesn’t] fear the interactions with law enforcement.”

One week later, the Washington Post reported that Biden will likely nominate former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who personally helped cover up the police murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014, as ambassador to Japan.

It’s a particularly egregious example of the longstanding practice of presidents doling out cushy ambassadorships to old friends, high-dollar donors, or political allies, especially those deemed too toxic for more powerful posts in the Cabinet (as Emanuel has been) or executive branch agencies. Being the ambassador to a wealthy nation allied with the U.S., while still carrying some responsibilities, is often more or less a multiyear vacation on the government’s dime.

Most presidents reserve about 50 ambassadorships for this “political selection” process, with the rest going to career foreign service officers. Donald Trump, unsurprisingly, upped the corruption factor. During his last days in office in January, 83 ambassadors, or 43.5 percent of all U.S. ambassadors, were his handpicked allies.

But Biden has been slower than most presidents to dole out the diplomatic goodies, which has bred consternation among the donor class: a Daily Beast report in February quoted an anonymous Democratic donor, fuming, “It’s bullshit. The number of asks over the course of the campaign… and they can’t even remember to make a phone call to the people who kept the lights on.”

Now, according to the Washington Post, Biden is finally getting around to scratching the backs of his friends and allies. This carries weight in D.C. gossip circles, given how well-connected Biden is there. So who made the cut?

Emanuel, as mentioned earlier, will likely attract the most interest, and for good reason. I’ve written previously about how his persona of a hard-edged political shark is mostly built on bluster and failed strategies. He’s done favors at every turn for both Wall Street and the police state, actors whom Biden and his party are belatedly recognizing are rightly despised by their voter base.

One of the least-known names on the list is Mark Gitenstein, one of Biden’s former Senate aides whom he once called “my best personal friend.” In 2008, Gitenstein had been favored to lead the powerful Office of Legal Policy at the Department of Justice, but the nonprofit consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen successfully shot him down for his long history of corporate lobbying on the very judicial issues that the office oversees. (...)

There’s also David Cohen, a Comcast lobbyist who hosted Biden’s very first fundraiser of the 2020 election cycle. Cohen has wielded power on behalf of the telecommunications monopolist since 2002, mostly in Pennsylvania, which is how he grew close with the Scrantonian Biden. Biden is sending Cohen to Canada at the same time as his administration is bringing in anti-monopolists like Tim Wu and Lina Khan, who (like most Americans) have few kind things to say about Comcast.

Mexico, meanwhile, will welcome Ken Salazar as the ambassador to the country, a well-liked former Colorado senator who was Obama’s interior secretary. While Salazar was overseeing the calamitous BP oil spill into the gulf that the U.S. and Mexico share, he was also approving new offshore oil drilling permits. He’s currently a Big Oil lawyer through the offices of WilmerHale, which is the law firm representing BP in the gulf spill lawsuits.

Then there’s Tom Nides, the current front-runner to be ambassador to Israel. A career investment banker, Nides personally switched the pay structure for Fannie Mae executives to incentivize short-term earnings. By 2008, Nides was a lobbyist for Morgan Stanley and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the main lobbying consortium for Wall Street traders. His team “successfully resisted calls to break up the banks or impose caps on their size,” in the words of the New Yorker, in part thanks to Nides’ personal connections with powerful centrist Democrats—he was Joe Lieberman’s chief of staff during the 2000 presidential campaign.

Morgan Stanley paid Nides $9 million for his services killing financial reform in 2010, but the next year he took a new job: the third-in-command in Hillary Clinton’s State Department. His role focused on “economic statecraft,” a euphemism for promoting American companies around the globe. Nides was also “Clinton’s informal link to the Israeli government and to the pro-Israel lobby in Washington,” according to the New Yorker. Consider that link formal now.

What can we take away from these names? For one, that Biden rewards those who have served him loyally, like most politicians. For another, that he doesn’t want to alienate core constituencies or powerful voices in his party.

But what might be most interesting isn’t the names, but the jobs for which they’re being nominated. These are men—exclusively men—who have served as presidential chiefs of staff, Cabinet secretaries, and high-ranking world diplomats. They’re used to being in the room when real decisions are made. Yet here they are, shunted off to the embassies of allied nations whose leaders will probably just call Biden directly if they need something. In a certain light, it looks like Biden is embarrassed by them, desperate to appease them in exchange for keeping them quiet.

Emanuel, Nides, and the rest likely aren’t complaining about their new roles. But the fact that this is what they got—and not, say, a Cabinet secretary position, as Emanuel, in particular, hoped for—perhaps speaks to a change in how the old Washington wheeling and dealing is perceived. Biden may be a swamp creature, but his White House knows that the public is angry and that the policies and preferences of men like these are to blame for it. To hold on to his own power, Biden appears to be shedding those who came up around him. It just turns out that the price of that is the public paying for years of sake and sushi for someone who helped cover up the murder of a teenager.

by Max Moran, Naked Capitalism |  Read more:
Image:Kamil Krzaczyński/AFP/Getty Images
[ed. And so it goes: Biden picks ex-Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel as US ambassador to Japan. See also: Talk of Rahm Emanuel in Biden cabinet outrages his Chicago critics (The Guardian)]

Fred Coppin (British, b. 1989), Evergreen, 2020

Anthony Hopkins, 70s
[ed. Recent Academy Award winner for Best Actor (at 83).]

Is Capitalism Killing Conservatism?

The report Wednesday that U.S. birthrates fell to a record low in 2020 was expected but still grim. On Twitter the news was greeted, characteristically, by conservative laments and liberal comments implying that it’s mostly conservatism’s fault — because American capitalism allegedly makes parenthood unaffordable, work-life balance impossible and atomization inevitable.

This is a specific version of a long-standing argument about the tensions between traditionalism and capitalism, which seems especially relevant now that the right doesn’t know what it’s conserving anymore.

In a recent essay for New York Magazine, for instance, Eric Levitz argues that the social trends American conservatives most dislike — the rise of expressive individualism and the decline of religion, marriage and the family — are driven by socioeconomic forces the right’s free-market doctrines actively encourage. “America’s moral traditionalists are wedded to an economic system that is radically anti-traditional,” he writes, and “Republicans can neither wage war on capitalism nor make peace with its social implications.”

This argument is intuitively compelling. But the historical record is more complex. If the anti-traditional churn of capitalism inevitably doomed religious practice, communal associations or the institution of marriage, you would expect those things to simply decline with rapid growth and swift technological change. Imagine, basically, a Tocquevillian early America of sturdy families, thriving civic life and full-to-bursting pews giving way, through industrialization and suburbanization, to an ever-more-individualistic society.

But that’s not exactly what you see. Instead, as Lyman Stone points out in a recent report for the American Enterprise Institute (where I am a visiting fellow), the Tocquevillian utopia didn’t really yet exist when Alexis de Tocqueville was visiting America in the 1830s. Instead, the growth of American associational life largely happened during the Industrial Revolution. The rise of fraternal societies is a late-19th- and early-20th-century phenomenon. Membership in religious bodies rises across the hypercapitalist Gilded Age. The share of Americans who married before age 35 stayed remarkably stable from the 1890s till the 1960s, through booms and depressions and drastic economic change.

This suggests that social conservatism can be undermined by economic dynamism but also respond dynamically in its turn — through a constant “reinvention of tradition,” you might say, manifested in religious revival, new forms of association, new models of courtship, even as older forms pass away.

It’s only after the 1960s that this conservative reinvention seems to fail, with churches dividing, families failing, associational life dissolving. And capitalist values, the economic and sexual individualism of the neoliberal age, clearly play some role in this change.

But strikingly, after the 1960s, economic dynamism also diminishes as productivity growth drops and economic growth decelerates. So it can’t just be capitalist churn undoing conservatism, exactly, if economic stagnation and social decay go hand in hand.

One small example: Rates of geographic mobility in the United States, which you could interpret as a measure of how capitalism uproots people from their communities, have declined over the last few decades. But this hasn’t somehow preserved rural traditionalism. Quite the opposite: Instead of a rooted and religious heartland, you have more addiction, suicide and anomie.

Or a larger example: Western European nations do more to tame capitalism’s Darwinian side than America, with more regulation and family supports and welfare-state protections. Are their societies more fecund or religious? No, their economic stagnation and demographic decline have often been deeper than our own.

So it’s not that capitalist dynamism inevitably dissolves conservative habits. It’s more that the wealth this dynamism piles up, the liberty it enables and the technological distractions it invents let people live more individualistically — at first happily, with time perhaps less so — in ways that eventually undermine conservatism and dynamism together. At which point the peril isn’t markets red in tooth and claw, but a capitalist endgame that resembles Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” with a rich and technologically proficient world turning sterile and dystopian.

by Ross Douthat, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Carlos Javier Ortiz/Redux

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Truth about Painkillers

In October 2003, the Orlando Sentinel published "OxyContin under Fire," a five-part series that profiled several "accidental addicts" — individuals who were treated for pain and wound up addicted to opioids. They "put their faith in their doctors and ended up dead, or broken" the Sentinel wrote of these victims. Among them were a 36-year-old computer-company executive from Tampa and a 39-year-old Kissimmee handyman and father of three — the latter of whom died of an overdose.

The Sentinel series helped set the template for what was to become the customary narrative for reporting on the opioid crisis. Social worker Brooke Feldman called attention to the prototype in 2017:
Hannah was a good kid....Straight A student....Bright future. If it weren't for her doctor irresponsibly prescribing painkillers for a soccer injury and those damn pharmaceutical companies getting rich off of it, she never would have wound up using heroin.
Feldman, who has written and spoken openly about her own drug problem, knows firsthand of the deception embedded in the accidental-addict story. She received her first Percocet from a friend years after she'd been a serious consumer of marijuana, alcohol, benzodiazepines, PCP, and cocaine.

Indeed, four months after the original "OxyContin under Fire" story ran, the paper issued a correction: Both the handyman and the executive were heavily involved with drugs before their doctors ever prescribed OxyContin. Like Feldman, neither man was an accidental addict.

Yet one cannot overstate the media's continued devotion to the narrative, as Temple University journalism professor Jillian Bauer-Reese can attest. Soon after she created an online repository of opioid recovery stories, reporters began calling her, making very specific requests. "They were looking for people who had started on a prescription from a doctor or a dentist," she told the Columbia Journalism Review. "They had essentially identified a story that they wanted to tell and were looking for a character who could tell that story."

The story, of course, was the one about the accidental addict. But to what purpose?

Some reporters, no doubt, simply hoped to call attention to the opioid epidemic by showcasing sympathetic and relatable individuals — victims who started out as people like you and me. It wouldn't be surprising if drug users or their loved ones, aware that a victim-infused narrative would dilute the stigma that comes with addiction, had handed reporters a contrived plotline themselves.

Another theory — perhaps too cynical, perhaps not cynical enough — is that the accidental-addict trope was irresistible to journalists in an elite media generally unfriendly to Big Pharma. Predisposed to casting drug companies as the sole villain in the opioid epidemic, they seized on the story of the accidental addict as an object lesson in what happens when greedy companies push a product that is so supremely addictive, it can hook anyone it's prescribed to.

Whatever the media's motives, the narrative does not fit with what we've learned over two decades since the opioid crisis began. We know now that the vast majority of patients who take pain relievers like oxycodone and hydrocodone never get addicted. We also know that people who develop problems are very likely to have struggled with addiction, or to be suffering from psychological trouble, prior to receiving opioids. Furthermore, we know that individuals who regularly misuse pain relievers are far more likely to keep obtaining them from illicit sources rather than from their own doctors.

In short, although accidental addiction can happen, otherwise happy lives rarely come undone after a trip to the dental surgeon. And yet the exaggerated risk from prescription opioids — disseminated in the media but also advanced by some vocal physicians — led to an overzealous regime of pill control that has upended the lives of those suffering from real pain.

To be sure, some restrictions were warranted. Too many doctors had prescribed opioids far too liberally for far too long. But tackling the problem required a scalpel, not the machete that health authorities, lawmakers, health-care systems, and insurers ultimately wielded, barely distinguishing between patients who needed opioids for deliverance from disabling pain and those who sought pills for recreation or profit, or to maintain a drug habit.

The parable of the accidental addict has resulted in consequences that, though unintended, have been remarkably destructive. Fortunately, a peaceable co-existence between judicious pain treatment, the curbing of pill diversion, and the protection of vulnerable patients against abuse and addiction is possible, as long as policymakers, physicians, and other authorities are willing to take the necessary steps. (...)

Many physicians... began refusing to prescribe opioids and withdrawing patients from their stable opioid regimens around 2011 — approximately the same time as states launched their reform efforts. Reports of pharmacies declining to fill prescriptions — even for patients with terminal illness, cancer pain, or acute post-surgical pain — started surfacing. At that point, 10 million Americans were suffering "high impact pain," with four in five being unable to work and a third no longer able to perform basic self-care tasks such as washing themselves and getting dressed.

Their prospects grew even more tenuous with the release of the CDC's "Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain" in 2016. The guideline, which was labeled non-binding, offered reasonable advice to primary-care doctors — for example, it recommended going slow when initiating doses and advised weighing the harms and benefits of opioids. It also imposed no cap on dosage, instead advising prescribers to "avoid increasing dosage to ≥90 MME per day." (An MME, or morphine milligram equivalent, is a basic measure of opioid potency relative to morphine: A 15 mg tablet of morphine equals 15 MMEs; 15 mg of oxycodone converts to about 25 mg morphine.)

Yet almost overnight, the CDC guideline became a new justification for dose control, with the 90 MME threshold taking on the power of an enforceable national standard. Policymakers, insurers, health-care systems, quality-assurance agencies, pharmacies, Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers, contractors for the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and state health authorities alike employed 90 MME as either a strict daily limit or a soft goal — the latter indicating that although exceptions were possible, they could be made only after much paperwork and delay.

As a result, prescribing fell even more sharply, in terms of both dosages per capita and numbers of prescriptions written. A 2019 Quest Diagnostics survey of 500 primary-care physicians found that over 80% were reluctant to accept patients who were taking prescription opioids, while a 2018 survey of 219 primary-care clinics in Michigan found that 41% of physicians would not prescribe opioids for patients who weren't already receiving them. Pain specialists, too, were cutting back: According to a 2019 survey conducted by the American Board of Pain Medicine, 72% said they or their patients had been required to reduce the quantity or dose of medication. In the words of Dr. Sean Mackey, director of Stanford University's pain-management program, "[t]here's almost a McCarthyism on this, that's silencing so many [health professionals] who are simply scared."

Doctors Pressured, Patients Suffer

The consequences of this new opiophobia have fallen on the shoulders of patients experiencing acute or chronic pain, many of whom have found themselves abandoned by health-care providers in the name of preventing opioid abuse and addiction.

Dose tapering of chronic-pain patients with commercial health insurance and Medicare Advantage has increased substantially in recent years, and a quarter of those patients have had their doses tapered more quickly than medically recommended, according to a 2019 study by researchers at the University of California, Davis. In 2017, a survey of 3,100 chronic-pain patients by the non-profit Pain News Network revealed that 71% could no longer obtain necessary opioid medication from a doctor or had to settle for a lower dose. Eight out of 10 said their pain and quality of life had worsened, and more than 40% said they had considered suicide as a way to end their suffering. Even some patients with sickle cell disease and terminal cancer — subgroups that the CDC explicitly excluded from the reach of the guideline — were not immune from painful dose reductions or complete cutoffs.

Many of these abandoned patients have become "pain refugees," a tragic cadre of individuals who chase the dwindling numbers of physicians still willing to prescribe even modest doses of opioids. Traveling hundreds of miles every few months to obtain care in another city or state, they often drain their limited incomes on the odyssey. Those who remain with their local physicians often try to supplement their reduced doses by adding alcohol or benzodiazepines for pain relief, thereby inadvertently enhancing the odds of an overdose. (In fact, the lethality of such combinations has created an exaggerated sense of the inherent lethality of opioid pain relievers which, on a population level, are rarely the sole cause of a fatal overdose.)

Other pain patients who've had their doses tapered or cut off have replaced opioids with large amounts of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents such as Advil, acetaminophen, or aspirin, which puts them at increased risk of liver injury, renal damage, and bleeding from the upper gastrointestinal tract. Still others report being required to undergo invasive procedures, such as implantation of medication pumps, in order to manage their pain.

Some patients have become so desperate for relief that they've moved to inherently riskier drugs after losing access to prescription opioids. "The VA cut my pain meds cold turkey after over 25 years," a veteran told Fox News. "I now buy heroin on the street." Though the percentage of such patients is small (perhaps 5% over five years, according to estimates from SAMHSA), turning to street pills has proven dangerous. The Drug Enforcement Administration warns that sales of counterfeit pills — consisting of fentanyl pressed into pill shapes with familiar tablet markings — have been linked to overdose deaths nationwide.

by Sally Satel, National Affairs |  Read more:
Image: uncredited
[ed. Finally, a voice in the wilderness. Relatedly, I'd like to see a more nuanced discussion on the topics of dependency and addiction. The author (like everyone else) assumes anything addictive is unquestionably bad (especially if it's something that makes you feel good). If you need insulin, are you dependent and an addict? Of course, but who would deny insulin to a diabetic, and what's the difference? How might the world look if people had a steady and reliable supply of medications, for whatever reasons? Couldn't be much worse than it is now and might solve a lot of social problems. RIP Tom Petty and Prince.]

Why Do All Records Sound the Same?

When you turn on the radio, you might think music all sounds the same these days, then wonder if you’re just getting old. But you’re right, it does all sound the same. Every element of the recording process, from the first takes to the final tweaks, has been evolved with one simple aim: control. And that control often lies in the hands of a record company desperate to get their song on the radio. So they’ll encourage a controlled recording environment (slow, high-tech and using malleable digital effects).

Every finished track is then coated in a thick layer of audio polish before being market-tested and dispatched to a radio station, where further layers of polish are applied until the original recording is barely visible. That’s how you make a mainstream radio hit, and that’s what record labels want. (...)

When people talk about a shortage of ‘warm’ or ‘natural’ recording, they often blame digital technology. It’s a red herring, because copying a great recording onto CD or into an iPod doesn’t stop it sounding good. Even self-consciously old fashioned recordings like Arif Mardin’s work with Norah Jones was recorded on two inch tape, then copied into a computer for editing, then mixed through an analogue console back into the computer for mastering. It’s now rare to hear recently-produced audio which has never been through any analogue-digital conversion—although a vinyl White Stripes album might qualify.

Until surprisingly recently—maybe 2002—the majority of records were made the same way they’d been made since the early 70s: through vast, multi-channel recording consoles onto 24 or 48-track tape. At huge expense, you’d rent purpose-built rooms containing perhaps a million pounds’ worth of equipment, employing a producer, engineer and tape operator. Digital recording into a computer had been possible since the mid 90s, but major producers were often sceptical.

By 2000, Pro Tools, the industry-standard studio software, was mature and stable and sounded good. With a laptop and a small rack of gear costing maybe £25,000 you could record most of a major label album. So the business shifted from the console—the huge knob-covered desk in front of a pair of wardrobe-sized monitor speakers—to the computer screen. You weren’t looking at the band or listening to the music, you were staring at 128 channels of wiggling coloured lines.

“There’s no big equipment any more,” says John Leckie. “No racks of gear with flashing lights and big knobs. The reason I got into studio engineering was that it was the closest thing I could find to getting into a space ship. Now, it isn’t. It’s like going to an accountant. It changes the creative dynamic in the room when it’s just one guy sitting staring at a computer screen.”

“Before, you had a knob that said ‘Bass.’ You turned it up, said ‘Ah, that’s better’ and moved on. Now, you have to choose what frequency, and the slope, and how many dBs, and it all makes a difference. There’s a constant temptation to tamper.”

What makes working with Pro Tools really different from tape is that editing is absurdly easy. Most bands record to a click track, so the tempo is locked. If a guitarist plays a riff fifty times, it’s a trivial job to pick the best one and loop it for the duration of the verse.

“Musicians are inherently lazy,” says John. “If there’s an easier way of doing something than actually playing, they’ll do that.” A band might jam together for a bit, then spend hours or days choosing the best bits and pasting a track together. All music is adopting the methods of dance music, of arranging repetitive loops on a grid. With the structure of the song mapped out in coloured boxes on screen, there’s a huge temptation to fill in the gaps, add bits and generally clutter up the sound.(...)

Once the band and producer are finished, their multitrack—usually a hard disk containing Pro Tools files for maybe 128 channels of audio—is passed onto a mix engineer. L.A.-based JJ Puig has mixed records for Black Eyed Peas, U2, Snow Patrol, Green Day and Mary J Blige. His work is taken so seriously that he’s often paid royalties rather than a fixed fee. He works from Studio A at Ocean Way Studios on the Sunset Strip. The control room looks like a dimly-lit library. Instead of books, the floor-to-ceiling racks are filled with vintage audio gear. This is the room where Frank Sinatra recorded “It Was A Very Good Year” and Michael Jackson recorded “Beat It.”

And now, it belongs to JJ Puig. Record companies pay him to essentially re-produce the track, but without the artist and producer breathing down his neck. He told Sound On Sound magazine: “When I mixed The Rolling Stones’ A Bigger Bang album, I reckoned that one of the songs needed a tambourine and a shaker, so I put it on. If Glyn Johns [who produced Sticky Fingers] had done that many years ago, he’d have been shot in the head. Mick Jagger was kind of blown away by what I’d done, no-one had ever done it before on a Stones record, but he couldn’t deny that it was great and fixed the record.”

When a multitrack arrives, JJs assistant tidies it up, re-naming the tracks, putting them in the order he’s used to and colouring the vocal tracks pink. Then JJ goes through tweaking and polishing and trimming every sound that will appear on the record. Numerous companies produce plugins for Pro Tools which are digital emulations of the vintage rack gear that still fills Studio One. If he wants to run Fergie’s vocal through a 1973 Roland Space Echo and a 1968 Marshall stack, it takes a couple of clicks.

Some of these plugins have become notorious. Auto Tune, developed by former seismologist Andy Hildebrand, was released as a Pro Tools plugin in 1997. It automatically corrects out of tune vocals by locking them to the nearest note in a given key. The L1 Ultramaximizer, released in 1994 by the Israeli company Waves, launched the latest round of the loudness war. It’s a very simple looking plugin which neatly and relentlessly makes music sound a lot louder (a subject we’ll return to in a little while).

When JJ has tweaked and polished and trimmed and edited, his stereo mix is passed on to a mastering engineer, who prepares it for release. What happens to that stereo mix is an extraordinary marriage of art, science and commerce. The tools available are superficially simple—you can really only change the EQ or the volume. But the difference between a mastered and unmastered track is immediately obvious. Mastered recordings sound like real records. That is to say, they all sound a little bit alike.

by Tom Whitwell, Cuepoint | Read more:
Image: uncredited

Saturday, May 8, 2021


Jack Nicklaus: Golf My Way

[ed. Can't believe it. Jack Nicklaus's Golf My Way on YouTube. One of the best golf instruction videos, ever.]

[ed. Jingle and Sam]

Why Stocks Soared While America Struggled

You would never know how terrible the past year has been for many Americans by looking at Wall Street, which has been going gangbusters since the early days of the pandemic.

“On the streets, there are chants of ‘Stop killing Black people!’ and ‘No justice, no peace!’ Meanwhile, behind a computer, one of the millions of new day traders buys a stock because the chart is quickly moving higher,” wrote Chris Brown, the founder and managing member of the Ohio-based hedge fund Aristides Capital in a letter to investors in June 2020. “The cognitive dissonance is overwhelming at times.”

The market was temporarily shaken in March 2020, as stocks plunged for about a month at the outset of the Covid-19 outbreak, but then something strange happened. Even as hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, millions of people were laid off and businesses shuttered, protests against police violence erupted across the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the outgoing president refused to accept the outcome of the 2020 election — supposedly the market’s nightmare scenario — for weeks, the stock market soared. After the jobs report from April 2021 revealed a much shakier labor recovery might be on the horizon, major indexes hit new highs.

The disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street, between corporate CEOs and the working class, has perhaps never felt so stark. How can it be that food banks are overwhelmed while the Dow Jones Industrial Average hits an all-time high? For a year that’s been so bad, it’s been hard not to wonder how the stock market could be so good.

To the extent that there can ever be an explanation for what’s going on with the stock market, there are some straightforward financial answers here. The Federal Reserve took extraordinary measures to support financial markets and reassure investors it wouldn’t let major corporations fall apart. Congress did its part as well, pumping trillions of dollars into the economy across multiple relief bills. Turns out giving people money is good for markets, too. Tech stocks, which make up a significant portion of the S&P 500, soared. And with bond yields so low, investors didn’t really have a more lucrative place to put their money.

To put it plainly, the stock market is not representative of the whole economy, much less American society. And what it is representative of did fine.

“No matter how many times we keep on saying the stock market is not the economy, people won’t believe it, but it isn’t,” said Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist. “The stock market is about one piece of the economy — corporate profits — and it’s not even about the current or near-future level of corporate profits, it’s about corporate profits over a somewhat longish horizon.”

Still, those explanations, to many people, don’t feel fair. Investors seem to have remained inconceivably optimistic throughout real turmoil and uncertainty. If the answer to why the stock market was fine is basically that’s how the system works, the follow-up question is: Should it?

“Talking about the prosperous nature of the stock market in the face of people still dying from Covid-19, still trying to get health care, struggling to get food, stay employed, it’s an affront to people’s actual lived experience,” said Solana Rice, the co-founder and co-executive director of Liberation in a Generation, which pushes for economic policies that reduce racial disparities. “The stock market is not representative of the makeup of this country.”

Inequality is not a new theme in the American economy. But the pandemic exposed and reinforced the way the wealthy and powerful experience what’s happening so much differently than those with less power and fewer means — and force the question of how the prosperity of those at the top could be better shared with those at the bottom. There are certainly ideas out there, though Wall Street might not like them.

by Emily Stewart, Vox |  Read more:
Image: Vox
[ed. See also: Counting the Chickens Twice; and, Always a Reckoning (Hussman Funds).]

Friday, May 7, 2021

Sam Middleton, 1927-2015, Untitled, Mixed media on paper.