Sweet ’16

We might agree that 2016 was nobody’s idea of a good time.  Certainly, any year that sees the death of Snape and the rise of Voldemort lends credence to Ross Douthat’s recent quip that “history has become a fever dream from which we are struggling to awake.”

However, in the spirit of holiday cheer—and in defiance of the natural urge to swallow a cyanide capsule or play Russian roulette around an empty table—I will close out my year with a reflection on the handful of people who made 2016 bearable.  Some of these were virtually unknown to me before January 1, and yet today I cannot imagine my life in their absence.  It just goes to show that every 12-month period, no matter how depressing, contains certain hidden pleasures that, in the fullness of time, add up to something resembling a life well-lived.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA

For reasons mostly beyond my control, I haven’t yet seen Hamilton live at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York.  Indeed, I haven’t seen it anywhere except through bootleg clips on YouTube and the PBS special Hamilton’s America, which aired earlier this fall.

But I have heard Lin-Manuel Miranda’s visionary historical epic more frequently than any album this year (if not ever), and I think it’s fair to say that after 30 or 40 rounds of the rap battles, R&B ballads and other assorted musical revisionism that comprise this singular cultural behemoth, one has “experienced” Hamilton as deeply as humanly possible short of shelling out the thousands of dollars required for an actual goddamned ticket.

In any case, the influence of Lin-Manuel Miranda on my life in 2016—possibly the greatest of any nationally-known individual—was not just the show itself, but all the treasure hunting that Miranda’s sublime lyricism inspired.  In addition to teaching me more about rap and hip-hop than I’d ever known (or cared to know) before, Hamilton sent me to the history section of the library with a ferocity I wish I’d possessed in college.

Plowing through the Ron Chernow epic that got this whole trouble started—followed by Chernow’s equally magisterial 2011 biography of George Washington—I progressed to Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers and Revolutionary Summer, followed by the likes of Edmund Morgan and Annette Gordon-Reed and others, and before you knew it, I felt I understood America’s founding generation almost as well as the average middle school student from the Bronx whose class gets to see Hamilton for free on a Wednesday afternoon.  What a country.

TA-NEHISI COATES

Apart from anything else, 2016 was the year I became officially embarrassed to be a white man in America.  If the election of Trump was the final straw—and it was—there is no overstating the impact of The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates in laying the historical foundation for why America still hasn’t solved racism more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War.

One answer to this—long argued by Coates and others and seemingly proved by the rise of Trump—is the enduring assumption of white privilege.  Without batting an eye, white people can spend 400 years denying black people life, liberty, voting rights, decent housing and access to basic municipal services, but at the first mention of “affirmative action” or “Black Lives Matter,” suddenly the country is engaged in a race war and white people are the most oppressed group in America.

It’s enough to make a cat laugh, and reading Coates—as breathtakingly beautiful a stylist in prose as Miranda is in poetry—has removed any possibility (if one existed) of my embracing this white supremacist fantasy at any point in the future.

For me, this began with Coates’ essay, “The Case for Reparations,” published in The Atlantic in the summer of 2014, continued with his bestselling memoir, Between the World and Me, and culminated just this month in his newest Atlantic piece, “My President Was Black,” which tries to reconcile America’s continued institutional racism with the fact that Barack Obama was elected president twice.

Just as important—as with Lin-Manuel—were the myriad works by other writers that Coates’ own writing forced me to seek out—particularly those of James Baldwin, whose novels Another Country and Giovanni’s Room were among the most pleasurable reads of my year and whose essay collections Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time were among the most illuminating.

WESLEY MORRIS AND JENNA WORTHAM

A late adopter of virtually everything, I still haven’t fully assimilated the concept of podcasts to my day-to-day life.  However, early in the fall, I stumbled upon “Still Processing,” hosted by the New York Times, and I haven’t missed an episode since.

The podcast is a weekly conversation between Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, two young-ish feature writers for New York Times Magazine, with each installment examining some aspect or other of contemporary American culture, be it music, film, TV, sports, politics or—as is often the case—the intersection of all the above.

As with other great cultural commentators, the appeal of Morris and Wortham hinges on their impeccable taste, their engaging conversational style and, most of all, the outside-the-box manner in which they each view the world around them.  (In 2012, as a Boston Globe film critic, Morris was recognized with the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.)

In “Still Processing,” this gift manifests itself through either discussing subjects that no one else is paying attention to, or discussing popular subjects through a unique and unorthodox lens.  In the 16 episodes to date, Morris and Wortham have tackled everything from transgender identity to the new Smithsonian Museum of African-American History to O.J. Simpson to Moonlight to the social history of the black penis to the feminist supernova that is Beyoncé.

As you can tell from that list, certain themes have a way of popping up again and again, which tracks with Jon Stewart’s great insight—adopted by Larry Wilmore upon creating The Nightly Show—that “every important story in America has either race, class or gender hiding underneath it.”  To the extent that we knew this all along, 2016 might go down as the year we officially stopped pretending otherwise.

Elsewhere, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone provided the foul-mouthed gonzo political reporting that has long made him the most deliciously readable commentator in cyberspace.

On late night TV—still the most blissful way to fall asleep without heavy drinking—Samantha Bee became the inner consciousness of American liberals that saw what was happening in the news every day and ran outside to scream into the night.  It’s a shame Bee’s blistering program, Full Frontal, only airs once a week, and that Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show was cancelled.  In the absence of responsible cable news outlets, Bee, Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver and The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah are, collectively, television’s last best hope in explaining to ordinary citizens just what the hell is going on.

(Incidentally, The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert and The Late Late Show’s James Corden are, for my money, the most purely enjoyable late night hosts in the game.  However, in their pitch for middle-of-the-road mass appeal, they are not quite as pointed as their aforementioned rivals—although Colbert has leaned more in that direction since the election.)

Finally, there was Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!  A weekly, hour-long comedic news quiz show on NPR, Wait Wait has been a public radio staple since 1998, but—again, thanks to my tortoise-like reflexes to my cultural surroundings—it was only just recently that it became a regular part of my week.  Hosted by Peter Sagal and featuring a rotating panel of three underemployed writers and comedians cracking jokes about current events, Wait Wait provided a desperately-needed catharsis at the end of each jaw-dropping week of this historic year, making hay of serious world events while going full metal gaga over the silly ones.

Admittedly, by the end, it became awfully hard to tell the difference.

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Kanye and Me

I can’t say that I’ve ever given much thought to Kanye West.

I know he’s a significant figure in the world of hip-hop, but I don’t listen to hip-hop.

I also know that he is—as President Obama once observed—a jackass.  At the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, West famously stormed the stage to protest the awarding of Best Female Video to Taylor Swift, insisting it should have gone to Beyoncé, instead.

Smash cut to last Sunday’s Grammy Awards, where West came this close to repeating himself, creeping toward the podium as the trophy for Album of the Year went to alt-rocker Beck.  West paused and returned to his seat before reaching the mike, but the point was made:  Once again, this was a prize that should have gone to Queen Bey.

The following day, West explained himself thusly:

The Grammys, if they want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us.  We aren’t going to play with them no more. […] Beck needs to respect artistry; he should have given his award to Beyoncé.  At this point, we tired of it.  What happens is, when you keep on diminishing art, and not respecting the craft, and smacking people in the face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration.

West has been roundly criticized for this and related comments, presumably for the way they seamlessly combine selfishness, arrogance, condescension and want of tact in a single thought.  West later clarified that his dig was directed not at Beck, per se, but at the Grammys themselves, saying, “Beck knows that Beyoncé should have won.  Come on man, I love Beck, but he ain’t have album of the year.”  So that clears that up.

We could dismiss this whole episode as yet another eye-rolling instance of Kanye being Kanye.  Yet I am somehow inclined to run with it and take it semi-seriously.  The truth is that, however childish and inappropriate his series of rants was, I understand how he feels and I think the actual ideas behind the bluster are worthy of our attention.

All that he means to do, after all, is take the Grammys seriously as not just a TV show, but as an institution that judges the value of popular music.  Music artists spend 364 days per year pouring their souls into their work, and the Grammys represents the one moment of official recognition by the music industry—a means of determining which works rise above all the others.  It is not something to be taken lightly.

I confess I do not share West’s passion on this point about his industry—perhaps because my own tastes in music are not particularly well-represented by the Grammys in the first place.

On the other hand, there’s another trophy-leaden TV event next Sunday that I care about very much:  The Academy Awards.  In a good year—and as a consequence of spending far too much time in dark auditoriums—my feelings about the Oscars mirror Kanye’s about the Grammys, and I’m not going to apologize for them.

For reasons too complicated to explain, there are eight movies up for Best Picture this time around.  Word on the street is that it’s anybody’s game, and the final vote is expected to be very, very close.

It shouldn’t be.  So far as I’m concerned, the year 2014 in film can be divided into two groups.  There was all the usual fare, and then there was Boyhood.

Richard Linklater’s gloriously engaging film—originally called, simply, The Twelve-Year Project—accomplished nothing less than showing what it was like to grow up in the first decade of the 21st century in America.  Which is to say that, for the generation now coming of age—along with innumerable members of other generations, it would appear—it will stand as the definitive film about growing up, period.

By no means is Boyhood the first movie made about the infernal Millennials, and certainly not the first about the joys and horrors of adolescence.  However, it is the first such film to follow its protagonist through the entirety of his life from age 6 until his high school graduation, while also charting the travails of his mother, his father and his older sister.  All these people are allowed to age at the pace at which they actually did.  As you have surely heard by now, the movie was filmed, on and off, over the course of 12 years.

Granting itself such breadth—unprecedented for a non-documentary—Boyhood suggests the ways in which people change and grow over time.  How a deadbeat dad can eventually become responsible and mature, or how a single mother can weather several dead-end relationships while earning a graduate degree and securing a good job.  Not to mention how a young boy who spray-paints graffiti on the underside of a bridge can develop into a serious-minded photographer who embarks for college with confidence but also a nagging insecurity about where his life is headed.  You know:  Just like the rest of us.

Lacking a formal plot, Linklater’s experiment amounts to a collection of small moments that add up to something quite big, indeed.  After four viewings, I sense I am still only beginning to understand precisely how to account for its seemingly effortless (and bottomless) appeal.  In a way, I feel about this film as Roger Ebert did about the documentary Hoop Dreams—a four-year chronicle of two promising young basketball players—of which Ebert wrote, “It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”

On Oscar night, the Academy should respect artistry by giving its top prize to Boyhood.  It’s a monumental achievement of cinema, and for Best Picture to go to anything else would diminish the form.  Seriously, Academy, don’t be disrespectful.

However, I won’t rush the stage if they go and give it to Birdman instead.  After all, I’m not a crazy person.

The Fallacy of Good Taste

The Grammy Awards are this Sunday, when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences will reveal which of the past year’s musical compositions we should have listened to.

After a year of waiting, it will be such a relief to finally find out which music from 2012 was good and which was bad.  I’ve been stumbling around in the dark this whole time, spinning my iPod wheel like Russian Roulette, hoping it lands on something decent.

But no more after Sunday.  As everyone knows, the word of the Grammy music gods is final.

This being February, as per tradition, we are being inundated by awards shows of every size and shape.  ‘Tis the season when America engages in one of its greatest mass conspiracies:  Pretending that every popular art form contains a group of philosopher kings whose tastes reign supreme, and whose judgment carries far greater weight than that of us mere mortals.

One of the crucial lessons I gleaned from college film classes is that, when it comes to popular culture, no one’s opinions are any better than anyone else’s.  Everything is a matter of taste, and taste, by definition, cannot be qualitatively measured in any objective way.

Everybody knows this to be true at one level or another, yet we continue to invest ourselves in this season of golden statuettes as if they mean something.

They don’t.

Later this month, when and if a plurality of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences proclaims Lincoln the best movie of 2012, it will signal precisely one thing:  That a plurality of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences marked Lincoln for “best movie” on its Oscar ballots.  That’s about it.

All awards shows are meaningless, but the Grammys really take the cake.

I don’t know about you, but my taste in music changes by the hour.  I have an “official” favorite song, but after that it’s about a 200-way tie for second place.

It all depends on the mood.  What hits the spot as I’m careening down the highway might not necessarily work as I’m sitting quietly at my computer.  Some days I prefer hard rock; other days I surrender to Top 40.

My musical preferences are protean, entirely a function of how I feel at the moment.  Is there anyone for whom this is not the case?

If not, how could we possibly presume to pick “the best” that the recording industry has to offer?  For an art form that is so personal, based on the ever-changing emotions of its listeners—indeed, whose very purpose is either to complement or counteract those emotions—what exactly does it mean to be “the best” anyway?

To partially answer my own question, I think the explanation of awards shows’ enduring popularity can be traced to the American tendency toward consensus, including in subjects that do not require or would necessarily be enhanced by such a thing.

To wit:  The most useful article I have found about Beyoncé’s performance at last Sunday’s Super Bowl is from Jay Caspian Kang of the blog Grantland, who writes, “[Beyoncé] is popular because she’s easy to like and she’s something everyone has decided to agree upon across race, class, and creed.”

I like Beyoncé, but the point is taken and worth pondering in broader terms.  Facile is the artist who is accessible to all audiences at all times.  Where is the edge?  Where is the danger?  On the subject of movies, Roger Ebert makes a related critique, writing, “What does it say about you if you only want to see what everybody else is seeing?”

None of this is to say the Grammys cannot be enjoyed as an entertaining television event.  The Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has certainly taken greater steps than the Motion Picture Academy in making its program watchable.

But Grammy voters should not be mistaken for objective arbiters of musical quality.  They are not, for no such persons exist.

There is no reason there should, for it misses the whole point about the purpose of music.

You like what you like, and that’s just how I like it.