28 May 2008

west wing it (1 of 2)

I'm going to do my level best to beat a very dead horse here today: The West Wing, created by Aaron Sorkin, is my favorite television program of all time. The first four years, anyway, where he was running the whole show (and right before he ran himself into the ground). A ridiculous confluence of events came to pass that made it absolutely, unquestioningly the Right Show at the Right Time (besides the fact that it was well-written, earnest, smart, idealistic, unpatronizing and challenging to its audience... besides the fact that it was just a good show... well, the Shrub. Without the Shrub, the show wouldn't have been what it was).

I remember hearing about it when I was in high school, and I knew, I just knew that NBC would be cruel enough to run enough episodes to allow me to get hooked on it, and then they'd take it away from me. Shows I love never last (with a few exceptions, like my beloved 30 Rock); I was ready to watch it, to love it, and then to wave goodbye to it, like a gorgeous woman that enters your line of sight and then disappears before you even have the opportunity to process what she might mean to you.

I remember the pilot episode, how the dialogue just flowed properly, but more in the way that David Mamet's dialogue flows than, say, that of a writer more explicitly concerned with representing the way people speak in real life. As my friend Mason put it, The West Wing (which I will henceforth refer to as "The Show") was a show written by a smart guy, for a smart audience, that featured smart people speaking smartly about smart things (that's a paraphrase - he may have used "educated" rather than "smart," but the sentiment's the same). I steal the following excerpt from the episode to prove my point (Bartlet4America.org, I am in your debt):

Press Secretary Claudia Jean "CJ" Cregg: Is there anything I can say, other than the President rode his bicycle into a tree?

Chief of Staff Leo McGarry: He hopes never to do it again.

CJ: Seriously. They’re laughing pretty hard.

Leo: He rode his bicycle into a tree, CJ. What do you want me to -- “The President, while riding a bicycle on his vacation in Jackson Hole, came to a sudden arboreal stop” -- What do you want from me?

I have never, in my life, met people who speak the way Josh, Toby, Sam, Donna, Leo, CJ, Charlie, Ainsley, Mrs. Landingham, Abbey and Jed speak to each other, but if I ever did, I think that would mean I had died and gone to smart people heaven (why would they let me in? I'll have to think on that). They weren't afraid of using polysyllabic words and phrases and paragraphs and monologues to get their point across; in sharp contrast to the man who has stumbled and fallen every time Josiah Bartlet would've risen to the occasion these last eight years, the more impassioned the characters became, the more complicated their speeches got. I steal this time from a website called MRC.org, a site whose politics (I'm just guessing here) aren't as in line with the show as mine are; this is from the third episode of the second season (it's called "The Midterms"):

President Josiah Bartlet: "Good. I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality ‘an abomination.'"

Doctor Jenna Jacobs: "I don't say homosexuality is an abomination Mr. President. The Bible does."

Bartlet: "Yes it does. Leviticus-"

Jacobs: "18:22."

Bartlet: "Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? [silence in the room] While thinking about that can I ask another? My chief-of-staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police?

"Here's one that's really important, 'cause we've got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean, Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side-by-side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you.

"One last thing. While you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the ignorant tight-ass club, in this building when the President stands, nobody sits."

She stands up, by the way.

Polished communication is an art form, just as virtually ever skill-based activity is, when it's done by a master. In season three, speaking about his old friend Jed Bartlet, Leo says that, "A podium is a holy place for him." Whether or not Sorkin drew Bartlet as a conscious, reasonable, ideal alternative to George II is probably something I'll never know, but he was. A man of religion (just as the Shrub claims to be - difference is, Bartlet was a moderate Catholic, with a tolerance and appreciation for faith and belief in all its myriad forms, while the Shrub decided he was going to wage Crusade-style, capital H, capital W Holy War against the Middle East, and replaced his drug addiction with the buzz that comes from righteousness), a man of ideas (one of my favorite stories from Richard Clarke's book Against All Enemies comes pretty early on, when he draws the best possible difference between George II and Clinton - Bill would stay up well past 3 a.m., voraciously consuming information, or batting around ideas with visiting scholars or dignitaries or anyone of ideas, whereas the staff that was staying on for the new administration was told a) that the President likes to go to bed early, so he won't be kept up for anything and b) he doesn't much like to read, so briefings and memos should be short and to the point - Bartlet, on the other hand, won a Nobel in economics), a man of consuming passions (I suppose they share this trait, for most powerful people probably do, but Bartlet's obsessions led him down the path of greatness, whereas if the Wrong Man hadn't been around at the Wrong Time, he would've been the most impressive lame duck president in history) and a man who believed in the greatness of America, not just as the most powerful country in the history of the world, but as an ideal, perfection that we as citizens, that the world should continually strive for, a place of justice, of brotherhood, of understanding, of love and of harmony, and he was surrounded by people that he was able to inspire to similarly lofty goals and heights (I have a tough time believing that George can inspire anyone to anything, except as an example of why you shouldn't live your life like a fuckup).

I adore this program for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that the show, on multiple occasions, directly influenced the course in which my political beliefs developed. I was at the right age (high school) and just impressionable enough that I could seriously, honestly, sincerely take in what Sorkin was trying to say, digest it for myself, and, more often than not, come out a believer on his side. The best example of that comes from an episode in the first season called "Six Meetings Before Lunch;" in this episode, Sam Seaborn (Deputy Communications Director) has been arguing with Leo's daughter Mallory, a public school teacher. She's gotten ahold of a brief he wrote condemning public education in America. As a person who has spent the bulk of my educational career (13 years in private school vs 5 in public) in private (Catholic) school, I thought I knew the virtues of private school. I certainly had them crammed down my throat often enough at school. Mallory McGarry, as a public school teacher, took issue with Sam's position on public education, or so she thought. Turns out, Leo had Sam write the memo because, as he put it, they make the smartest guys take the other side when they're preparing. Sam dazzles Mallory (and changed my mind forever) with the following lines (thanks to Bartlet4America again):

Sam Seaborn: "Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don't need little changes. We need gigantic revolutionary changes. Schools should be palaces. Competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be getting six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge for its citizens, just like national defense. That is my position. I just haven't figured out how to do it yet."

It's insane to call yourself a liberal and not be in favor of the big things that government can do for people. Government's not just there to raise an army and control the various relations between the states, leaving everything else to the devices of state and local government; this isn't the ideal nation of small farmers that Thomas Jefferson so dearly craved (though I think he'd be kind of impressed to see how far we've come). Government should do for everyone; it should take a defining role in the lives of its citizens. It should make things better for each and every citizen, and shouldn't just facilitate the lives of those who already have it good. Government should run education, health care, defense, transportation... anything that should be a basic service for everyone, and not simply a revenue stream (nothing against revenue streams, I just don't think corporations should be profiting off of making people feel better). If you want your kids' school to be better, the answer shouldn't be running off to create a better school for them and their friends whose parents make seven figures like you do, the answer should be figuring out how to improve the school for all the kids your child goes to school with, particularly the ones that wouldn't be able to pick up and leave for private school.

And that was what made the show so amazing. Everyone, every single character, was an idea and opinion delivery system, at their core. Never before, and likely never since, will didactic storytelling be so compelling. CJ and Toby could argue over affirmative action honestly, and attempt to come to some sort of resolution. Ainsley Hayes (hot, blonde... Republican?) could put a positive spin on lipstick feminism that didn't turn women into sex objects. The President could sit down with one of his Republican adversaries in the Senate, and after they were done explaining to one another why they would be enemies until their dying days, they decided to work together to promote campaign finance reform.

I am, literally, a child of Aaron Sorkin's mental arguments made flesh. That may be sickening, that an otherwise intelligent, reasonable person could be twisted so dramatically by a television show, but I don't think it is. The Show was about people reaching beyond themselves, putting aside their selfish aspirations, their "look out for number one" mantras, and genuinely trying to make life better for everyone (at least, that's what the good guys did. That's why they were the good guys). Here's what Ainsely said after she came back from (supposedly) turning down the White House's job offer (tv.com - "In This White House," Season 2):

Ainsley Hayes: "Say they´re smug and superior. Say their approach to public policy makes you wanna tear your hair out. Say they like high taxes and spending your money. Say they want to take your guns and open your borders. But don´t call them worthless. At least don´t do it in front of me. The people that I´ve met, have been extraordinarily qualified. Their intent is good, their commitment is true. They are righteous, and they are patriots. And I´m their lawyer."

I'm going to avoid restating what I feel the horrible problem was with The Show (TV = opiate... at least that's what Bill Watterson said; simulated reality on NBC got in the way of what might've been actual revolution against some truly evil people), and go right to how I think it could be fixed. The legacy of The Show cannot be that it allowed liberals to slip away into a fuzzy, warm place for a few years while George II and his royal court co-opted everything good and right about this country and twisted it for their own sick, mad, evil ends. The Show is too good, too sincere, too right for that to happen. Its legacy has to be in people that step up to the plate, that feel deep inside themselves what Bartlet said Ainsely felt: civic duty. Its legacy has to be in graduating classes of law schools, in undergraduate and graduate poly sci majors, in people who take a semester or a year off before getting their business degree to help campaign for someone who might really make a difference in their hometown, in the people who will in the future run for public office, and the people who staff their campaigns. The legacy of The Show must be that people saw the true opportunity that presented itself in public service, that life isn't just about getting a promotion that gives you enough money for a down payment on a vacation time share that you can eventually turn into a vacation home with enough promotions, along with the fast, awesome car and the badass watch. We're measured by the work we do not for ourselves, but for the people around us. Sorkin threw down the gauntlet, but it's up to us to pick it up.

That's enough for now. I'm going to go into detail on how I want to respond to his challenge at a later date.

01 May 2008


I really need to have a talk with whoever it was that said rap was just a "c" away from crap. I certainly couldn't have agreed more during my days in high school ("white guys with guitars" was pretty much the extent of my musical depth, and it's certainly not untrue today... but I'd like to think I've broadened my horizons since then. More on that later, time and inclination permitting), but if our tastes really do change (or mature) as we age (or mature), I've had to do a reevaluation of my opinion these last few years.

[It's worth derailing my train of thought for a moment to talk about Rage Against the Machine. To this day, I still don't much like Zach's voice. The music, almost universally, is bulletproof, but the problem with talking about what's happening right now is that even six weeks from now, it might be dated. That's the problem with To The 5 Boroughs, the problem with the "Rock Against Bush" compilations, and what totally works in favor of Bad Religion's The Empire Strikes First, because it works well as an oppressive, evil government protest album no matter the situation.

Wow. A digression in the middle of a digression. Do I rock or what?

The point is that Rage didn't lead me towards rap, in the same what that the Chili Peppers didn't lead me towards rap: it was always too heavily grounded in rock, and even when it wasn't, I remained convinced that the more directly rap-influenced parts were the weakest. I never much warmed to Zach's delivery, either. I should revisit Battle for Los Angeles and see what I think now.]

I think it began with The Roots' album Phrenology, that's probably what changed my trajectory (well, not so much changed, but altered). For years, for years my principal complaint with "rap music" was that it was precisely not what it purported to be: music. Lyrics over a beat, that's about the extent of most of the "rap music" that makes its way onto the radio, as far as I could tell. I hadn't been properly introduced to the brilliant minimalism of Public Enemy, or the unstoppable, raging-river-like flow of Jay-Z, or the sheer awesomeness of The Roots. Sure, like every other white guy that had gone to private school his entire life, I'd listened to Beastie Boys albums, and I can say I enjoyed them, but Ad Rock, Mike D, and MCA were never going to open up a new world of music to me.

And I suppose that Incubus is somewhat to blame for my belated introduction to the fellows from Philly, what with that much-maligned departure (which would probably be fodder for an entry all by itself... I should remember that) of founding bassist Dirk Lance and his eventual replacement by Ben Kenney, formerly of, yes, The Roots. While I've never been a Incubus "fan," I do think they put out three pretty darn good albums, which they followed with an absolute stinker of a disc, and that's sort of where the Phil Wrede/Incubus story ends. I could care less about Incubus these days, for there are plenty of other better, more interesting bands to subject my ears and mind to.

But, as usual, we're getting off track. The Roots. Phrenology. "The Seed (2.0)." A rap group that plays instruments, that doesn't just run looped and chopped and re-whatevered synths through a machine? One that's awesome enough for Michael Mann to include in the Collateral soundtrack? How could I not track this album down (easily the best of the overpriced records I purchased at the Virgin Megastore)?

It's tough so far after the fact to articulate what it was specifically about Phrenology that blew me away - was it the musicianship, the lyrics (and their delivery), the construction of the songs, or just the attitude, this brilliant balance between intellectual and barely restrained rage?

Once Phrenology was properly digested, we were off to the races. Common, Kanye West, Jurassic 5 (may they rest in peace), even my most hated of all rap artists, Marshall Mathers himself... All right, maybe that's not quite "off to the races," but for a guy raised on Atlantic Records R&B and bluegrass music, that ran for the hills of heavy metal as quickly as he could purchase his first Metallica album, that's, relatively speaking, diving in head-first.

Which I think kind of brings us up to date. Or at least to this date, which I believe is a little more than a week since the release of the latest Atmosphere record, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold. If it's never before been possible to marry rap sensibilities to overly pretentious indie, post-rock titling, it certainly is now.

I don't really remember where I first heard about Atmosphere (and the only things I really remember are that they're indie rap darlings, and they're from Minnesota), and researching the group and its members on Wikipedia hasn't helped me one little bit. For the first time in recent memory, the Internet has failed at providing me quick, relatively worthless pop culture information.

..Wait. Further research has revealed that MF Doom is, was, or has been (I'm not totally clear... you can't be sure of much when you take twenty or so seconds to perform cursory research) on the same label as Atmosphere, and he collaborated with Danger Mouse on a record. Perhaps I learned about Atmosphere while I was researching Gnarls Barkley; the summer that St. Elsewhere came out feels like half a lifetime ago.

To continue to digress, in retrospect, it's ridiculous that I used to have such a vendetta against rap/hip hop; as a person who claims to revere words, and the creative use of them, the thought that I would rail against a musical form that places such significance on words, and the saying of words, is bizarre. It'll be interesting to look back in a few more years and analyze how my opinions have mutated once again (they seem to tend towards doing just that). Consider this my formal apology to good artists everywhere; if you're good, you're good, it doesn't matter what you do.

All right, with all of that out of the way, let's see if I have anything useful to say about When Life Gives You Lemons...

The first thing that jumped out at me when I opened the disc case were the liner notes. There were just... so many words in each song, and they were just dripping with fury ("Puppets," - which features a great Beastie Boys shout-out - and my personal favorite track on the album, "Dreamer"); I knew then and there I was in for a good ride.

I was never too enamored of the "bitches and hoes" school of rap, which is definitely why I've gravitated towards the artists in the genre I have, but I could never have expected I'd be listening to a rap album so preoccupied with single parents, downtrodden people attempting to make their way, or people just... alone in the world, with no one else to turn to but themselves. They're topics that lend themselves to stories, and I suppose that, as a person fascinated with stories, the record speaks to me on a pretty fundamental level. It also helps that the tales held within are told well (I've heard that previous Atmosphere records were pretty concerned with Slug's life experience, and that this marks a bit of a departure. About the most I can say here is that I'm in favor of it - the stories contained within are compelling, and told well).

I'm going to pull a verse from "Dreamer" to illustrate my point here (bear with me... he's verbose in the greatest possible way):

A little girl was her first reason to breathe/ And a little man was the first man she believed in/ She gotta live right and do right by self/ She do for self, she don't want your help/ Afraid of bein' alone, but fear ain't enough to knock her off of that stone/ Gonna make that home her home, with or without a man that she could call her own/ Big boss at work is anxious, continues to hand her the wrong advances/ She passes the test, she knew the answers/ Quit the job to go take her chance with life/ This is life, we all strain/ While we pray for dollars and we work for change/ It's all the same, we all struggle/ Some times you gotta say fuck you/ When you smile and she doesn't return it/ Give her room, man, don't disturb it/ If it makes it hurt less to curse and fight/ Go ahead and hate the world, girl, you earned the right"

If the meaning of the album's title weren't clear before, it certainly is now.

I'm also compelled to single out the music that supports Slug's words. "Wild Wild Horses" is a lush, rich soundscape (the horns are just phenomenal), the flute in "The Waitress" reminds me of some of Marvin Gaye's work, the synthesizers in "Your Glasshouse" bring up a veritable well of emotions I have regarding some of my favorite 80's movies, and the propulsive percussion that runs through most of the songs... it's all put together expertly.

Oddly enough, if I were asked to compare When Life Gives You Lemons... to anything else, I really think I'd say a Springsteen record, mostly because of the stories. Having no familiarity with Atmosphere before this album, I can't speak to its place in their catalogue, but the stories that inhabit it remind me of the tales of the downtrodden characters in Nebraska and Devils & Dust. Slug's attention to detail is a lot like The Boss', too; the little things that he notes wouldn't be out of place in one of Bruce's songs. That's ridiculously high praise, and I don't know if I meant it as "high praise," because it's honestly the only comparison I can make.

In closing, I just want to mention the first thing I told my roommate Matt after I'd finished listening to the album, that I felt, while it was good, it wasn't something I would feel comfortable listening to all the way through. It's an intense record, for sure, but subsequent listenings have disabused me of that idea. In a lot of ways, it's best experienced as an unbroken experience. I think the record has an arc to it; it feels less overrun with hopelessness as it goes along (but maybe that's just the production, and not so much the lyrical content). All I know is, by the end of the album, I'm less depressed than I am at the start of it.

I have a new obsession, clearly.