Sunday, October 7, 2018

2 bad analogies about Supreme Court nominees . . .

. . . who face allegations of wrongdoing:

(1) "If I need surgery, I only care about the surgeon's medical skill. I don't care about anything else good or bad that the surgeon might have done. Therefore, we shouldn't care how a Supreme Court nominee has acted in life outside their job performance."

The problem with that: Government is different from a medical specialty like surgery, which has a clear scope and mission that's narrowly defined and uncontroversial. Government can potentially get involved in almost any area of our lives, and questions of what government should and shouldn’t concern itself with are hotly debated. So when we're talking about one of the most powerful government officials, it makes sense to look more broadly at the person's whole character, morals, judgment, etc.

(2) "If you were considering hiring a babysitter or nanny for your kids, and had heard that one candidate sexually assaulted a 15-year-old at age 17, and there were many other candidates who you had no reason to suspect of sexual assault, you'd probably pass over that person — even if it was just a rumor and you couldn't say it was more likely than not to be true. Choosing a Supreme Court Justice is a more important decision than choosing a babysitter or nanny, and therefore shouldn't have a higher standard of proof."

Problems with that: Hiring someone to help out in your own home is a private decision which you're free to make on a whim. It isn't an extended process that plays out in front of the whole country and could permanently mar a judge’s reputation. Also, choosing a nanny or babysitter isn't an elaborate governmental process that was carefully crafted to provide for separation of powers and checks and balances, in which a nominee is chosen by a president who's typically been elected after making campaign promises/statements about what kind of judges they'll choose, and another branch of government makes the final decision but is expected to give some degree of deference to the president's choice.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Nirvana's In Utero turns 25.

25 years ago today, on September 21, 1993, Nirvana released its third and last studio album, In Utero, the defiantly raw and noisy follow-up to Nevermind.

And if you really want to feel old, think about this: In Utero is an older album today than the Beatles' White Album was on the day In Utero was released!

There’s a “soulful” tribute to the album called Heart-Shaped Tracks (Spotify link). Based on the free samples, my favorite is the cover of “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” which feels true to the spirit of the song while fitting comfortably in the R ’n’ B genre.

Serve the Servants” kicks off the album perfectly with a chaotically discordant chord (the ‘90s equivalent to the beginning of “A Hard Day’s Night”?). The first line is a droll take on the band’s success: “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old.” At the end of each chorus, Kurt Cobain seemingly mocks himself for overdramatizing how he was affected by his parents’ divorce in interviews: “That legendary divorce is such a bore!” The song is unusual in that the singing in the chorus is lower and more relaxed than in the verse; the other way around is far more common.



(Here's a live performance where Kurt Cobain played a wonderfully off-kilter, anti-virtuosic guitar solo.)


Heart-Shaped Box,” the first single from the album, was perhaps the only song on In Utero that an unsuspecting listener at the time might have expected as a follow-up to the poppier Nevermind. This was one of three songs that was remixed by Scott Litt to have clearer vocals than in Steve Albini’s original mix; Krist Novoselic explained that songs like this and “All Apologies” were “gateways” to the rest of the album, which would cause more people to discover the album’s “aggressive wild sound — a true alternative record.”




Dumb” is the “Polly” of In Utero; the songs have a similar chord progression, but “Dumb” is more fully satisfying, with atmospheric cello adding depth to the soft side of the band. The cellist on this song and “All Apologies” was Kera Schaley, the only musician to play on a Nirvana studio album without being in the band.




Milk It” is an aggressively un-commercial song with shockingly dissonant guitar playing. One line is heart-breaking knowing what happened the next year: “Look on the bright side is suicide.”




Pennyroyal Tea” was going to be released as the third single from the album in April 1994 (following “All Apologies”), but the single was canceled because of Kurt Cobain’s suicide that month. He looked forward to the afterlife in an oddly non-rhyming couplet: “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/So I can sigh eternally.” He said: “The song is about a person who's beyond depressed; they’re in their death bed, pretty much.” Asked about the Leonard Cohen line, Cobain explained: “That was my therapy, when I was depressed and sick. I'd . . . listen to Leonard Cohen, which would actually make it worse.”




Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” is one of my favorite Nirvana songs, with manically oscillating guitar noise over relentlessly thumping drums. Most of the song is not quite “radio friendly,” but it gets most melodic in the bridge, with Kurt Cobain offering uncharacteristically straightforward advice: “Hate, hate your enemies/Save, save your friends/Find, find your place/Speak, speak the truth.”




All Apologies” brings the album to a bittersweet close, culminating in a meditative chant over droning guitars. Kurt Cobain had this song around since 1990, before Nevermind. When Dave Grohl heard a demo of it in the early days, he thought: “This guy has such a beautiful sense of melody — I can’t believe he’s screaming all the time.”



("All Apologies" unplugged.)

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Aretha Franklin (1942 - 2018)

Aretha Franklin, the great singer, songwriter, and pianist, has died of cancer at age 76.

When Rolling Stone ranked Aretha Franklin #1 on its list of the 100 greatest singers of all time in 2010, Mary J. Blige wrote this:

Aretha has everything — the power, the technique. She is honest with everything she says.… And she has total confidence; she does not waver at all. I think her gospel base brings that confidence, because in gospel they do not play around — they're all about chops, who has the vocal runs. This is no game to her. . . .

Even the way she pronounces words is amazing: In "Giving Him Something He Can Feel," when she sings, "Many say that I'm too young" — the way she says "I'm," you can almost see her saying it, like she's all in your face, but you're still right with her. You can really visualize her hands when she sings, "You're tying both of my hands," on "Ain't No Way" — it's the powerful way she hits the word "both."

When you watch her work, you can see why Aretha is who she is. When we did the song "Don't Waste Your Time" on my album Mary, she just went in there and ate that record like Pac-Man. She could be doing a church vocal run, and it would turn into some jazz-space thing, something I never encountered before. You'd say, "Where did that come from? Where did she find that note?"
Last year I posted this on Facebook:
50 years ago today, in 1967, Aretha Franklin released her 11th studio album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, when she was just 24. It's best known for "Respect," but I recommend the whole album — amazing intensity. . . .
In January I posted:
50 years ago today, in 1968, Aretha Franklin released her 14th album, Lady Soul. The first single from the album was "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." . . . Few recordings are as emotionally powerful as this one is in less than 3 minutes.

It's weird to think of Aretha Franklin as being underrated in any way since her singing has been so fully appreciated, but she doesn't get enough credit as a pianist. She played piano on many though not all of her recordings, including the iconic intro to "Think." Here she is playing piano and singing at age 22 in 1964:




She was still remarkably inventive as recently as 2016 with her improvisatory style of singing and piano playing in a version of the national anthem that stretched over 4 minutes:




A full concert from 1971, which starts with "Respect":




Here's her set at President Obama's White House in 2015:




Lastly, this 1986 concert includes great performances of "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You" (after 9:00) and "Natural Woman" (19:50):




Elton John has written a wonderful tribute (starting with this tweet):
The loss of @ArethaFranklin is a blow for everybody who loves real music: Music from the heart, the soul and the Church. Her voice was unique, her piano playing underrated – she was one of my favourite pianists.

I was fortunate enough to spend time with her and witness her last performance – a benefit for [the Elton John AIDS Foundation] at St John The Divine Cathedral. She was obviously unwell, and I wasn’t sure she could perform. But Aretha did and she raised the roof. She sang and played magnificently, and we all wept. We were witnessing the greatest soul artist of all time.

I adored her and worshipped her talent. . . . We shared the same birthday – and that meant so much to me. The whole world will miss her but will always rejoice in her remarkable legacy. The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.

"I sing to people about what matters. I sing to the realists — people who accept it like it is. I express problems. There are tears when it's sad and smiles when it's happy. It seems simple to me, but to some, feelings take courage." — Aretha Franklin

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Gov. Cuomo on America: "It was never that great"

The Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has caused an uproar by saying:

We’re not going to make America great again. It was never that great. We have not reached greatness.
Now, I can respect Americans who say that kind of thing. I thought it was fine when a Home Depot employee wore a cap that said “America was never great” in the store in 2016. If that’s how individual citizens want to express their conflicted feelings about America, more power to ‘em. Whether you agree or disagree with the sentiment, the fact that people feel so free to criticize America is one of the things that makes America great!

But most Americans don’t want to hear this kind of grim talk from their leaders. I already didn’t think Andrew Cuomo (my governor) had strong presidential prospects, and this won’t help.

UPDATE: Cynthia Nixon, Cuomo's Democratic primary challenger, responds:
I think this is just another example of Andrew Cuomo trying to figure out what a progressive sounds like . . .

Monday, June 18, 2018

Is Harvard doing to Asians what it used to do to Jews?

Glenn Reynolds says:

I wrote four years ago that it looked as if Asian applicants to Harvard were getting the "Jewish treatment" — that is, being subjected to quotas, and rated down on “soft” qualifications, so as to keep their numbers lower than their objective qualifications would warrant. This is what Ivy League schools did to Jewish applicants for much of the 20th century, because Jewish applicants were seen as boring grinds who studied too hard, and whose parents weren’t rich enough or connected enough to contribute to the schools’ flourishing.

The Ivy League eventually ended its quotas for Jews, suspiciously at about the time that there were enough rich and well-connected Jews to benefit the Ivy League. But now it’s doing the same thing to Asians. At least, that’s the charge made in a lawsuit charging Harvard with racial discrimination against Asian-American applicants. And I for one believe that Harvard is as guilty of anti-Asian discrimination now as it was of anti-Jewish discrimination back around the time I was born.

One of the things that highly selective schools like Harvard like to say is that their admission policy is “holistic,” based on personal characteristics that go beyond high school grades or SAT scores. This goes back to the early days of discrimination against Jews, when things such as “leadership” or “well-roundedness” were used to favor rich WASP applicants over Jews who just studied hard. And, often, there was a thumb on the scale.

Now that’s happening to Asians . . . .

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Tim Russert

Tim Russert of Meet the Press died 10 years ago today. I did this blog post.

Here are "lessons" from how Russert worked.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

What are your comments really doing?

People tend to overestimate their power to change others' views, and underestimate how much they're revealing about themselves through their comments. For instance, in a political discussion, telling me I don't have enough experience to understand [something] probably won't tell me anything new about myself; it's more likely to tell me that you leap to conclusions, because you think you know what I have and haven't experienced.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Joking

Jokes often have serious meaning. I may take you especially seriously because I know you're joking — because not only do I understand your meaning, but I appreciate the extra effort you put into conveying it well.