Monday, December 06, 2010

POLITICS: Tax Dodger—How Obama's Political Ineptitude is Costing American Families

At some point, you have to take a stand. Draw the proverbial line in the sand. The person you are dictates that you must, unwaveringly, stake out certain territory on which you simply will not compromise. Your belief system demands that you cannot budge on this issue or idea because, if you do, you will not be able to look yourself in the mirror or look at your friends or your children and feel even remotely good about yourself.

Regrettably, I’m coming to the realization—like many Americans—that President Obama isn’t capable of such a principled stand. Nor does he possess the political savvy and skill to be an effective leader. Not a great leader, mind you—just a bare minimum leader who describes a destination and fights unwaveringly to get there.

As the saying goes, this dog don’t hunt. This dog doesn’t want to wade into the cold water and get wet and dirty and go for the kill. And unfortunately for many Americans who voted for Obama, myself included, it appears we have a dog that prefers to stay safe and dry and cozy near the fire of corporate and Republican policy. Oh sure—this dog has a lovely bark, an inspiring bark even, but as too many citizens who responded to that alluring yap are beginning to realize, that’s all it is: a lovely bark. No bite. And apparently not much in the way of a spine, either.

What the vast majority of Americans need right now is a dog that hunts, that fights, that gets its ears chewed and its face scraped and its nose slashed but will not give up on them no matter what. We need a leader—an actual leader that stakes out a claim, draws a line in the sand, and says “Here’s the line that I will not cross—what else do you have for me?” With the economy still sputtering, a job market on life-support, and a housing environment unseen in this country since the depression, we need a leader who will battle and brawl to change the corporatist ideology that has ruled our policies for the past 30 years and has created the economic mess we’re in, that has pushed the devastating canards of international trade, a deregulated financial industry, and the borderline retarded concept that the government should do many things for the people but the people should not have to pay for any of it.

We need a President who uses the bully pulpit his office affords to put political pressure on elected officials who support the very policies that have crippled this country, to rally the American citizenry because it sees their leader scrapping and battling everyday for the policies that benefit the people and not the corporate interests that have so infected our way of life. It doesn’t matter if he wins every battle—so long as the family of four in Topeka witnesses their President doing everything he can to help them, to address their needs and concerns, to change the way our country has been rigged against that family’s best interests, the President will gain the dedication and respect and even activism of millions of similar families across America who are fighting to stay afloat.

But we don’t have that President. We have President Obama. He fought through the primary against Hillary Clinton. He fought against John McCain to win the general election. Obama just won’t fight FOR you or me.

How is it that after the worst financial collapse our country has seen in 70 years, after all we’ve learned about the risky and shady and illegal dealings of the banks and financial industry, after all the cries from politicians and citizens alike to reform the system—and all the temperate speeches Obama gave about how Americans need to be protected from this catastrophe ever happening again—that 2010 finds the very people whose actions created the financial meltdown of 2008 are making MORE money than they ever did before? That’s President Obama’s leadership—tepid new financial regulations that don’t substantively change the way Wall Street and the banking industry works and doesn’t actually prevent too big too fail institutions from failing and being bailed out—again—by you and me.

Obama’s leadership also brought us Health Care reform—where the insurance companies get millions of guaranteed clients and billions in guaranteed income and the American people get a few very modest, albeit important, concessions from the insurance industry. We get to pay MORE money to the very people who have been exacting exorbitant premiums from us for less coverage—by law.

It seems to be Obama’s way: make a heartfelt speech about protecting the average American, and then negotiate away any meaningful change to the system in order to say he’s accomplished something and not upset the corporate interests pulling the strings.

Obama is a corporatist who is great with the lip service to the American people but is too afraid to risk personal defeat or a well-earned nosebleed to actually lay himself and his ideas on the line for the very people who put him into office. It’s fear over hope. Capitulation over change.

So are we surprised that Obama is about to fold like a shirt—again—to the demands of the minority party over the expiration of the Bush tax cuts?

Designed to expire at the end of 2010—designed that way because the Republicans couldn’t pass the tax cuts by a simple Senate vote, so they did it by reconciliation—the Bush tax cuts are partly responsible for the horrible deficit currently saddling our country. In 2008, candidate Obama, like the VAST majority of the American people, felt that the Bush tax cuts that benefitted primarily the top 3% of income earners in this country should be allowed to expire. Even a year ago, President Obama said that the tax cuts that benefitted the wealthiest Americans should be allowed to expire (and no, that group doesn’t include you, and most likely never will be, so don’t get your panties in a bunch). Over a decade, those new tax revenues could bring in 700 billion to a trillion dollars. Quite a dent in the deficit everyone’s so worried about.

But now the political heat is on, and Obama (and his team) are AGAIN revealed as lacking leadership and even the most basic political skills. This is exactly when we need the President to step up and say here’s where I draw a line in the sand: I won’t accept ANY extension of the Bush tax cuts for the top 3% millionaires and billionaires. Period. The tax cuts have damaged our economy over the past 9 years, they haven’t created any jobs, and we need to start paying down our deficit with that additional tax revenue. That’s where Obama needed to start the negotiations—behind his line in the sand. From there, the Republicans (and some misguided Democrats) would have to negotiate. If the GOP countered with its usual answer—“No”—then the President would take every opportunity he could in the media to put the pressure on the GOP by pointing out facts like:

• the GOP won’t extend expiring unemployment benefits for working families
(a few billion dollars cost) but they insist on preserving tax breaks for 3% of
the country (hundreds of billions added to the deficit)

• the GOP won’t vote to close tax loopholes that allow companies to move their
jobs over seas and off-shore (more tax revenues to offset the deficit, possibly
more U.S. jobs), but they insist on preserving tax breaks for 3% of the country
(hundreds of billions added to the deficit)

• the GOP won’t vote to pay for the medical expenses incurred by first responders
at Ground Zero on 9/11 (seven billion dollars—for the heroes the GOP praised
years ago), but they insist on preserving tax breaks for 3% of the country
(hundreds of billions added to the deficit)

There are many other examples Obama could use to make the case to the American people that the GOP is not really concerned with the average worker and that most Republicans are beholden to corporate special interests (as are some Democrats). Make it really simple: Republicans are looking out for Wall Street and the Democrats are trying to help Main Street.

With Obama’s speaking abilities, he should be able to clearly explain why it is important for the Bush tax cuts for the American millionaires and billionaires need to expire and return to the still modest Clinton-era tax rates. Just look at the math: in eight years of lower taxes for the top 3%—the “job creators” claim the GOP—only 3 million net jobs were created. That’s barely over 300,000 jobs created per year for eight years. When that same 3% of Americans paid slightly higher taxes in the 1990s, a little over 3 MILLION jobs were created each year. Which tax rate has been best for you?

Obama could easily be winning this fight and forcing the GOP to change its position. Hell, the American people believe what candidate Obama ran on regarding the Bush tax cuts—recent polling shows that a clear majority of Americans want to the tax cuts for the upper 3% of Americans to expire. Not even a majority of Republicans believe the rates should be extended!

So why has Obama essentially given in to the GOP desire to extend the tax cuts? Why hasn’t he been using his bully pulpit to cudgel the GOP at every possible opportunity? Why, when the majority of the American people and his own party want to let these tax rates expire, is Obama unable to stiffen his backbone and draw that proverbial line in the sand?

I think it’s because he can’t. Because he doesn’t have the will or he’s too prideful to fight such a bare-knuckle battle. And this is connected to he and his team’s lack of political skill. When the majority of the people who put you in office back a policy you ran on—like the public option for health care, like reform of the financial system, and exactly like the expiration of the ill-conceived Bush tax cuts—you have to be a near political incompetent to lose the argument and negotiate away your principles. But that seems to be Obama’s unique ability: to lose the battle before he even begins to fight it.

So if Obama agrees to extend the Bush tax cuts temporarily, say for two years as has been reported, what are the political results of such a poor decision? Obama further alienates the people who voted for him, the very people who have been slowly realizing this dog don’t hunt and will have little to no incentive to support him as passionately as they did two years ago. But more importantly—and this is where Obama’s lack of political savvy is most evident—it means that this very same tax rate issue will be front and center in 2012 when he’s trying to get reelected. Handing the GOP—again—an issue that they can browbeat Obama and the Democrats with for an entire election cycle.

Even if nothing is done about the Bush tax rates expiring before the end of the year, Obama has a better chance of standing on principle and winning the tax battle. Remember when Newt Gingrich and the GOP shut down the government in the 1995? Clinton let them do it—he was making a principled stand—and it only took a few weeks before the American realized what the GOP was doing and turned severely on Gingrich and company. And guess what happened to Clinton’s approval ratings? They soared. And Clinton won the fight.

Obama may be an obviously intelligent person, but he’s not the brightest political bulb in the box. What did he say throughout the campaign about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result being the definition of insanity? He should heed his own words. Obama continues to reach out to the GOP expecting a different response and all he ever gets is a repeated haymaker to the chin. We don’t need a Jesus wannabe as President turning his other cheek. We need Jack Johnson to start landing some haymakers of his own against the GOP and for the American worker.

But if Obama lacks the strength of character to fight, to get sullied in the battle of American politics, then we need to start looking for someone who will. Our country simply can’t afford another two years of Republican policies endorsed by an admittedly moderate Democratic President. Obama’s decision on the Bush tax rates will say a lot about who he is willing to fight for. If he agrees to an extension of the tax rates, as the GOP wants him to do, then we know which Street Obama is most committed to. And few of us live in that neighborhood.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

POLITICS: On The GOP Congress, 3-Year-Olds, & An Angry Weiner

You’ve seen this face before. The whiny, bratty 3-year-old whose favorite word is “no.” They’re a pain in the ass. You don’t even have to be a parent to understand how freaking annoying it is to try to convince a toddler to do something—ANYTHING—once said toddler has decided that “no” is its favorite thing in the world.

Johnny, you need to finish eating your lunch.
Now Michelle, you have to put your coat on or we can’t go to the park.
This is the last time, Mitch: stop the tantrum and get up off that floor and get into the bathtub.

Sound familiar? That’s right—it’s today’s Republican Congress, whining and harrumphing and throwing infantile tantrums over virtually every piece of legislation that’s come down the pike since 2006. And it keeps getting worse: since January of 2009, the Republican party has offered little in the way of substantive legislation, instead making a decision as a national party to simply oppose whatever the Democrats and President Obama offer.

The stimulus bill of 2009? GOP said no.
Health care reform? GOP said no.
Financial reform? GOP said no.
Deficit reduction commission? GOP said no.
Campaign donation disclosure act? GOP said no.
Extending unemployment benefits during a recession? GOP said no.
Medical assistance for 9/11 first responders? GOP said no.
Tax relief for small business? GOP said no.

It’s like a broken record. Can you name one piece of legislation in the past 18 months that the GOP has offered and promoted and championed—besides tax cuts, of course?

I didn’t think so.

And you know what the really messed up thing is about the above list? Half of the items are legislation that Republicans supported and helped (in some cases) write only a couple of years ago! But, like all 3-year-olds, rational, mature decision-making is not the modus operandi. It can’t be—they’re only 3-years-old, fer chrissake.

The 110th Congress, from 2006 to 2008, set the record for the most filibusters ever in U.S. history (112). Filibusters are sort of nebulous to many Americans. What is a filibuster? It’s basically like a 3-year-old saying “no.” A filibuster is a parliamentary action where one person (or many) can hold up or prevent a legislative body (like the Senate) from even taking a vote on a proposed law. The concept of a filibuster dates back to Ancient Rome. Nowhere in the U.S Constitution, however, is the filibuster mentioned. It’s a rule the U.S. Senate adopted for themselves in the mid-1800s to protect the minority party from being steamrolled by the majority. (At the time it was adopted, it was evoked to prevent abolitionist Senators from outlawing slavery.) It really has nothing to do with what the Framers of the Constitution intended—a simply majority vote in the House and Senate to determine the laws of the land.
Senate Majority Leader McConnell about to say "no"

For those who say both the Democrats and the Republicans are “just as bad” when it comes to obstructing legislation using the filibuster, I have but one fact-based comment: you’re absolutely, numerically WRONG.

Here are some facts:
• Since 1919 and the 66th Congress to the 111th in 2010, there have been a total of 878 filibusters, averaging 19.5 filibusters per two-year Congressional session (meaning 9.75 per year on average).
• In the 110th Congress (2006-2008), the GOP used the filibustered a record-breaking 112 times. That’s 13% of the total number of filibusters in U.S. history—in just two years!
• As of Spring 2010, the GOP already had 50 filibusters under its belt (final numbers won’t be known until the 111th Congress ends in January 2011). But it’s safe to say that as of Spring 2010, the same cast of bratty, 3-year-old Republicans we’ve seen since 2006 will be responsible for 19% (maybe the full 20) of ALL filibusters in our country’s Senate history.

 Think about that: 20% of ALL filibusters in the U.S. Senate’s history have occurred since 2006 when Mitch McConnell and John Boehner became leaders of the Republican party.

Here’s another way to think about it: in a 90-year rivalry between two football teams—let’s say the Bears and the Packers—there is an average of 10 unsportsmanlike conduct penalties called every year (900 total). What if for the past 4 years, 180 unsportsmanlike conduct penalties were called —ALL of them against the Packers. Which team would you say is the dirtiest and most dishonorable group of players?

To put it bluntly, if you still think the Democrats and the Republicans are “the same” when it comes to using the filibuster to obstruct the legislative process imagined by the founders and described in our Constitution, you’re plainly an idiot. The GOP has been abusing the filibuster in the past few years unlike ANY party EVER in U.S. history.

This “Just Say No to Everything” approach to politics has been the orchestrated Republican strategy since 2006 when they lost control of the Congress. Even with George Bush in the White House, the GOP’s plan has been to stall, delay, and stop as many possible pieces of legislation as they can, often not even allowing the legislation to come to a vote in the Senate. Here’s one example: countless federal judge openings remain unfilled since 2008 because one Republican Senator—Dick Shelby of Alabama—used a rare procedure called the “blanket hold” on ALL of Obama’s judicial nominees. How’s that for doing the people’s business—allowing the people’s court system to get clogged up because one Republican Senator didn’t get a couple of special earmarks for his state and he threw a tantrum by blocking all judges until he gets what he wants.

Someone please give Dick Shelby a rattle and his binky.

For all the problems the Democrats have getting their own party together on some of the major issues and legislation over the past couple of years, what a total handicap to have had to deal with the GOP Congress’ filibustering and delaying tactics. Even in the fractious days of the Clinton administration, or the Reagan years before that, both parties argued their points of views vigorously, went to the mat to defend their ideas, but ultimately the Constitutional process was allowed to proceed as the framers’ intended—by allowing legislation to be voted on. The filibuster was occasionally invoked on both sides of the aisle, but it was rare.

Today’s GOP threatens a filibuster if the Democrats suggest the Senate take a potty break. It’s like trying to govern and solve problems with one hand and one foot tied behind your back. In some ways it’s amazing the Democrats have been able to accomplish anything. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been enough—and that has been part of the GOP strategy all along. When the one-handed and one-footed guy keeps falling over and can barely get anything done, the GOP is right there to stick its foot out and obstruct and then point at the wobbling one-handed/one-footed guy and complain about how ineffective he is at doing his job. Really kind of a douche bag approach to not governing.
House Minorty Leader Boehner saying "Hell No!"

So like any parent who has reached the brink with his or her 3-year-old’s shitty attitude, when tantrum number 7 hits and it’s not even lunchtime, sometimes you just crack. Yelling may not be the best answer to the situation, but sometimes it feels SO good. And it needs to be done.

Last week, New York Representative Anthony Weiner played exasperated parent for the entire nation when he lashed out at Republican Representatives on the House floor. There was a vote on the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, legislation that would commit about 5 billion over the next 10 years ($500 million annually) to the medical expenses of 10,000 9/11 first responders ($50,000 a year per person) who risked their lives in the rubble of the Twin Towers and now suffer severe—even fatal—respiratory conditions. The bill is named after a New York City policeman who died as a result of what he breathed into his lungs while trying to rescue victims of the 9/11 bombing. Fifty grand a year to help these heroes pay for their medical bills as a result of their selfless actions? Seems absolutely reasonable, doesn’t it?

It is absolutely reasonable. In fact, many Republicans, including Rep. Peter King of New York, were major proponents of the bill. But here’s where trying to do the right thing for American citizens gets derailed by the political process—specifically the GOP delay and obstruct tactics. One of the things the GOP wanted to do to this bill is add on an amendment that no illegal aliens could possibly get any money from the medical fund. Now think about that: if an illegal in this country on 9/11—maybe a firefighter, an EMT, even a medical worker—spent time at ground zero helping victims of the attack, breathing in all the contaminants that every other first responder breathed in, why wouldn’t that person be eligible to receive some monetary compensation to offset his or her exorbitant medical bills? Isn’t that what we love in this country? The selfless, heroic actions of everyday people? You get lung diseases because you were helping to save American lives, but sorry—because you’re an illegal alien we can’t give you a dime to help pay for your mounting medical bills for the past 9 years. Oh—but thanks for saving those lives and stuff.

So why would the GOP want to tack something likes this onto a bill? Because it’s hate the illegal immigrant season during an election cycle, that’s why. With this kind of an amendment, the GOP could’ve once again delayed a vote on the bill knowing election fearful Democrats would have to think twice about voting for a bill that made them seem like they wanted to give illegal aliens ANYTHING, even if they were heroes. And the GOP had no intention, despite their recent protestations, of ever passing this legislation. Why? Because of how the Democrats wanted to pay for this 5 billion dollar bill.

See, since the 1990s, the Democratic party—not the Republican party—has had this crazy idea that government should pay for what they spend. From 1993 until January of 2001, the Democrats and the Clinton Administration paid down the national debt and actually produced an unheard of surplus. The Democrats did that—not the GOP. After the Bush administration’s multiple tax cuts, multiple wars, and multiple spending bills (like Medicare part D) that they never budgeted money to pay for, the Democrats, since taking control of Congress in 2006, have been passing legislation that is actually paid for. Same with this 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. The Democrats’ bill proposed to pay for this act by closing the tax loophole that allowed foreign multinational corporations that are incorporated in tax haven countries like Bermuda or the Channel Islands to avoid paying tax on income earned in the U.S. And the GOP would rather take the pipe than close a tax loophole—even a loophole that benefits multinational, not strictly American, corporations. So the Democrats decided to use a House procedure that requires a 2/3rds vote to pass a bill and does not allow for any amendments (like the GOP illegal alien exception). This way, it’s a vote on the 9/11 Compensation bill that is paid for instead of adding to our mounting debt. And really, who would vote against such a bill when there was so much support across both aisles?

Your current model Republican party would rather vote for multinational corporate tax relief than the 9/11 heroes who sacrificed their health to save human lives. Republican New York representative Peter King made the case before the vote that had the Democrats allowed a different process—the one that would allow the GOP to delay and stall the vote by trying to add amendments like the illegal alien provision—then the GOP would vote overwhelmingly to support the bill. But they couldn’t vote on this clean, paid for bill because of the process. In light of the processes and procedures the physically ill 9/11 first responders have had to endure over the past eight years or so, representative King’s protestations fall hollow. And frighteningly infantile. Again: the GOP would rather protect multinational tax loopholes and try to score political points than provide medical assistance for the heroes of 9/11.

So no wonder Democratic New York representative Anthony Weiner exploded on the floor of the House right before the vote. His was not by any means the most productive response to the GOP’s lame procedural complaints, but Rep. Weiner said exactly what I think most Americans would’ve said when once again encountering the 3-year-old bratty tantrum. In the clip below, Congressman Weiner is yelling at is his fellow New Yorker Peter King, who had just made his complaint that the GOP couldn’t support this bill because of “the process” the Democratic majority had decided to use.

Kind of feels good to hear someone call out these Republicans for the manipulative, disingenuous cowards that they are and have been for the past four years, doesn’t it? We have watched one party attempt to address the key economic problems our country faces after 8 years of brazenly irresponsible Republican policy while the rat bastards who created the problems cross their arms and pout like infants and stomp their feet and say “No!” to every single idea offered. Like Rep. Anthony Weiner, I think most Americans are sick and tired of the GOP’s delay and derail tactics. And this 9/11 Medical Compensation bill is an extremely galling example of what happens when adults try to reason with infants prone to tantrums. Senator David Vitter of Louisiana may be the only GOP member who has been caught wearing diapers during his extramarital sexcapades, but the way the entire GOP relies on procedures like the filibuster or procedural complaints, perhaps the party would be best identified as Team Huggies.

Epilogue: you want to know what the most cynical part of the entire House vote on the 9/11 Medical Compensation Act was? GOP rep Peter King, the one complaining about “the procedure” the Democrats used for the bill, the one who claimed the GOP would all jump onboard if only the Democrats would’ve presented the bill for a vote in a different way, ultimately ended up voting FOR the defeated bill. As a New York representative, he knew damn well his constituents would’ve pilloried him if he had voted against the bill. To quote King’s fellow New York rep Anthony Weiner: Coward.

Monday, July 26, 2010

POLITICS: Respectfully Pimped

The following is a post I began a little while ago that I hoped would bring some historical perspective to the current BP oil leak situation—intimating at how UTTERLY short-sighted and borderline retarded we are as a nation when it comes to energy consumption. Funny thing happened: the folks at "The Daily Show" took the same historical angle and in about 5 minutes made a much wittier case for our national stupidity. A few weeks later, with the news of BP head Tony Hayward getting the axe, I thought it worthwhile to remember the generational extent of this issue lest we start feeling O.K. about the whole issue now that someone's head is rolling and there has been progress in capping the leak. So here's the compelling opening of my original post followed by Jon Stewart & company's spot-on pimping of said original post. Respect is due.

POLITICS: The BP Leak And Why We Are Accessories To The Crime

Two propositions that might help explain our current dilemma in the Gulf with BP's Deepwater Horizon oil leak:
1) Richard Nixon was the most progressive President on U.S. energy policy in the past 40-plus year.
2) If you offer a 4-year-old the choice between a cookie right now and a huge ice cream sundae in three hours after dinner, you know exactly which option the 4-year-old will choose every time.

That's right—we're the 4-year-old. Nixon, and almost every president since, is the parent patiently hoping we'll make the wise choice. But we like cookies. Lots of cookies. And we want the cookies now. Now, baby, now. And while we pick the cookie crumbs off our bellies as we watch news reports of millions of gallons of oil pumping into our ocean each day, we shake our heads, curse British Petroleum, and the government, and never once connect our lives to the horrible disaster we've watched unfold over the past two and a half months. Good cookies though.

For some 40 years, this country has known, discussed, and even threatened to act upon our growing addiction to oil consumption. Tree-huggers, eco-terrorists, and semi-elected presidents like Al Gore have rattled their Lorax ("I speak for the trees!") sabres about this energy problem over the years. Many politicians and even some titans of industry have spoken plainly about this problem for the past four decades. But we as a people have done little to nothing to effect any meaningful change. We want the cookies and we want to be able to drive whatever the hell kind of car we want to the store that's 1/2 a mile away because, dammit, we're Americans. And that's what we want to do. So there.

While I'm sure we will learn in great detail (as we are beginning to learn even now) how exactly and who precisely is responsible for the physical failure of BP's Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf, it will not change the very simple fact that the ultimate blame resides with us—American citizens. You and I and everyone we know.

We have and produce very little oil in this country yet we consume the largest share of the world's oil output. We always have—even Richard Nixon understood what a fool-hearty course this was for our country back in the early 1970s. Of all presidents one might imagine having any real vision for the environmental and energy future of this country, Nixon did more in his six years as President than any other U.S. has ever done. The Clean Air and Water Acts he signed became the basis for decades of environmental change, and it was Nixon who set up the now much-reviled by Republicans EPA. Nixon also dealt with the first major energy crisis this country faced, and you can blame him for such radical ideas as a 55 mph speed limit, suggesting 68-degrees for building heat, expanding daylight savings time—these were all measures Nixon acted upon in order to conserve energy and reduce our reliance on foreign oil. He even wanted a pollution-free car by 1980—what a dreamer!

But Nixon was the only president using his bully pulpit to try to make Americans understand the folly of this oil addiction. Gerald Ford did the same, and Jimmy Carter actually got Congress to pass some important legislation to start curtailing our oil addiction and to try and develop new, more natural forms of energy. Carter even put solar panels on the White House—and that was in the late 1970s!—but those were quickly removed when his successor Ronald Reagan took office.


And this is where I stopped, fully expecting to carry on with the post just as soon as I carved out enough time to finish it. In that interim, those wiley bastards at "The Daily Show" flat out pimped me. But they pimped me brilliantly. So with all due respect, Mr. Stewart . . .

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

POLITICS: Times Square Terror—Daffy Duck and Darth Vader MIA

Where the heck are Rudy Giuliani and Dick Cheney?

We just had an attempted terror attack on Times Square in New York City—isn’t that when Daffy and Darth usually pop up all over the media to offer their enlightening comments on how badly the Obama administration is handling homeland security and putting America at risk of attack?

Where’s America’s Mayor thputtering on about how unthafe the Obama polithies have made thith country? How come we haven’t heard Rudy thpouting his usual mantra about 9-11, 9-11, 9-11?

And what of Darth? Isn’t this the precise moment for him to don his fear veil and try to scare the shit out of his low-information countrymen? Where’s that death-rattle drone of his making claims that this recent attempted attack proves once again that the Obama administration loves the terrorists and is putting American lives at risk?

What could possibly keep Daffy and Darth away from the cameras at a time like this?

A number. 53 to be exact.

The reason we’re not seeing Cheney and Giuliani all over the news—or at least on FOX “news”—talking about this recent attempted attack in Times Square is because it took the federal government (which means the Obama administration) and the New York City police department only 53 hours to track down and arrest the perpetrator. Only 53 hours.

How long did it take the Bush administration to track down and arrest Osama Bin Laden? Oh, that’s right . . .

How long did it take the Bush administration to catch ANY of the 9-11 perpetrators? About 18 months until Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured—by the Pakistanis.

Of course, if this recent attempted attack on Times Square had happened in May of 2007 when there was a republican in the White House, you can bet that both Daffy and Darth would be all over the news media talking about what a fantastic job the FBI, CIA, NYPYD, and Homeland Security did in tracking and apprehending a terrorist on American soil. Proof again that what the President and his administration is doing to protect America is working.

But because “leaders” like Rudy Giuliani and Dick Cheney are such politically craven hacks who are wed to party ideology rather than dedicated to actually protecting the American public regardless of political affiliation, neither of them will step forward to publicly congratulate the federal and New York state authorities who managed this pretty remarkable feat of policing. It might give too much credence to the way Obama’s administration has handled homeland security.

And god forbid, it might smack too much of supporting their and our current President.


Tuesday, May 04, 2010

MEDIA: A Tale of Two COMPLETELY Different Americas

See update (FOX's response on May 5th) at end of story. 

While munching a little late lunch yesterday afternoon, my wife Carolyn and I were watching a bit of cable news. With the BP oil leak, the attempted terrorist bombing in Times Square, the flooding in Tennessee, ongoing financial reform efforts—it’s a busy news world these days. It was the top of the hour, where most news outlets stack the top stories of the day. Monday May 3, the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico lead all broadcasts.

Here’s a little bit of what we saw on MSNBC:

There’s some good background in this clip, especially putting the current BP leak in historical context. Simmons started a private investment bank in the early 1970s that specializes in energy. He’s an oil and energy man, no doubt about it. But his company has also been a major consulting and research entity in the field, and his latest book Twilight In The Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy deals not with vampires in arid climates but with what will happen globally when Saudi oil supplies dry up. Because the oil-dependant industrial world cannot obtain any true measure of what kind of oil reserves Saudi Arabia has, Simmons’ purpose in his book is to warn economies like ours that we may want to consider alternatives now to prevent a massive global crisis when Saudi oil dries up.

As for the credibility of Simmons, as an oilman, he was taking a reasonably measured approach. He pointed out that this is first drilling incident in this country in 41 years. Simmons was witness to the 1969 drilling accident off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA that spilled 80,000-plus gallons of oil into the ocean and onto the beaches. (He started his company a few years later partly in response to that situation.) Simmons cautioned about getting a witch-hunt going before we know the full extent of who is responsible and why this current leak occurred. Simmons acknowledges the severity of the BP spill—“a global tragedy”—and doubts that some of the current ideas about how to control the leak have any real chance of working. He points out that drilling in deep water isn’t a problem—it’s the risks of drilling so deep below the Gulf floor that is revealed in this tragedy.

As for host Dylan Ratigan, his agenda is pretty clear: how can the leak be stopped, who is responsible, and why hasn’t there been tighter regulation on the oil industry that might have disallowed this kind of drilling so deep under the Gulf floor. He compares this spill to Chernobyl, and tries to link the “self-regulation” of Wall Street to the same kind of self-regulation done by the oil companies. Ratigan’s schtick ever since he joined the MSNBC on-air staff has been to go after the big moneyed interests that have so much control over our economy. So it’s no surprise Ratigan is looking to finger a villain in this story.

When MSNBC goes to commercial, I switch over to FOX "news." My wife Carolyn doesn’t much care to watch FOX. It annoys her, especially FOX personalities like Sean Hannity, and she is rightly angered by the disinformation and outright lies the station offers as “news.” As readers of Roadkill know, I can’t help myself—FOX "news" to me is like watching news from a completely different world. I’m fascinated by the station's alien ways, and I admit I marvel sometimes at the willful misunderstanding FOX “news” engages in to rile up—but ultimately insult—their low information viewers. I’m sure it’s never stated in the hallowed halls of FOX, but you know the general working attitude toward their viewers is “Don’t worry—they don’t know any better.”

So here’s what we saw on FOX "news" coverage of the BP oil leak:

Heckuva job, Brownie.

You remember Michael Brown, don’t you? The FEMA director when Hurricane Katrina hit?

Carolyn was more surprised than I was that FOX’s coverage of the oil leak was not about what happened, how to stop it, or what can be done for the future but rather a political broadside about how the Obama administration was trying to exploit the leak to its advantage. The Obama administration that recently agreed to open up more coastal drilling. And how does this FOX “news” story angle help inform people of this ongoing environmental crisis?

I must admit even I was a little surprised that FOX would bring on Michael Brown of all people to comment on the oil leak in the Gulf. Near New Orleans. Where are Brown’s friends or family advising him to keep his name and face as far away from New Orleans as possible for the rest of his life?  Asking Michael Brown to comment on an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico that will directly impact the city of New Orleans is like asking the sleepy driver of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker to come on the air to talk about why we should drill for oil in ANWAR in Alaska. (I wouldn’t put it past FOX to do exactly that.)

Brown’s appearance is part of the FOX “news” fable the cable outlet has been pushing since this oil leak began: this is Obama’s Katrina, the Federal government failed to respond soon enough (despite the Coast Guard’s immediate appearance after the initial rig blast), Obama wants to use this crisis to stop all offshore drilling, and, of course, the rest of the media is blowing the leak out of proportion and it’s not REALLY as bad as everyone is making it out to be.

Watch FOX’s coverage for any chunk of time and you’ll see one or more—or all—of these story lines being repeated and reinforced. To be fair to Michael Brown, months after Katrina hit we learned that the blame for the government’s exceedingly slow response was as much the fault of the Bush administration as it was Brown’s work and knowledge on the ground in New Orleans. During the above interview, Brown even admits what he feels was his biggest failure—not making a big enough stink quickly enough to let the Bush administration know how serious the Katrina situation was and how bad things were getting. Fair enough, but did you notice how FOX “newsman” Neil Cavuto tries to help out Brown’s credibility and history? Cavuto suggests it was BOTH party’s fault for the response to Katrina, despite the fact that one party—the GOP—controlled the White House and the Congress and that the other party—the Democrats—were the ones doing exactly what Michael Brown claims he should have done to hasten the rescue efforts. The best Cavuto assist is when, after Brown admits his biggest failure, Cavuto adds, “It wasn’t as if you failed to try.” So Brown really was doing all he could, right? Even after he admits that he didn’t.

I can’t find a link on the FOX web site to what follows the Michael Brown interview, but it’s a doozy. Cavuto brings in Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi to advance another element of the FOX fable: that the oil leak really isn’t that bad and that the media is blowing it out of proportion. Barbour, former head of the RNC, tells Cavuto that he has just been down to the Mississippi coast and hasn’t seen any repercussions from the oil leak on his state’s shores. So everything’s fine, right? Barbour then goes on with a what can only be described as an optimist’s assessment: there’s really just a sheen on the water in most places, which isn’t harmful, and the heavy goop is being dissipated by the gulf waters. So what’s everybody got their panties in a bunch about, right? No need to stop offshore drilling Barbour warns.

So here’s my question: what is the purpose of FOX “news” coverage of the oil leak? Is it to inform their viewers of the ongoing crisis? Is it to give their viewers a sense of how this will effect not only the Gulf region but the country as a whole? Is it to find out how and why this leak occurred and let people know who is at fault and how we can avoid similar disasters in the future? Not at all. FOX claims to bring viewers the news so the viewers can decide themselves, but FOX “news” has already decided, hasn’t it? Based on the coverage I’ve seen on FOX over the past week or so, their primary purposes seem less about informing their viewers of the ongoing crisis and all about blaming the Obama administration and protecting the interests of the offshore oil industry. They report AND they decide for you. Which means you don’t have to do much thinking about the whole situation. In FOX “news” America, thinking and analysis isn’t really required. Like all good fiction, suspension of disbelief is mandatory.

MAY 5, 2010 UPDATE: "FOX Defends Michael Brown Interview: He's An 'Expert on Botched Responses."
Sounds like a headline from The Onion, but they're not kidding. Check out FOX's response to the criticism they received for having former FEMA head Michael Brown on to discuss the oil leak in the Gulf. You'll rarely read such labored logic—except by an outlet like FOX.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

MEDIA: Bill Maher Embraces The Teabaggers

"This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government . . . In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes."
– President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Farewell Address to the nation, January 1961

Bill Maher, like Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, practices what the great satirists like Voltaire and Swift and Twain and Vonnegut all understood: make them laugh to make them think. Maher may at times push the limits of taste for some people, but his humor is usually pushing the audience to see the absurdities of our culture and government—local, national, and global. Some of the most effective satire is born of frustration or anger. Instead of shouting at or physically attacking the object of frustration, a satirist finds a way to poke fun at the situation and advance a more clear or sensible alternative. Maher is a master at this.

Case in point: at the end of every episode of his Friday HBO series "Real Time," Maher offers up a few "New Rules" for modern society. The rules target issues and people of the moment, and they allow Maher and his staff to craft the most literary satiric material for what is essentially an issues-based talk show. It's just Maher speaking directly to the camera. The April 23 "New Rule" directed at the Teabaggers/Tea Party was one of Maher's finest moments in years. He questions how serious these Teabaggers are about cutting the deficit and shrinking the national debt. No need to explain what he says—watch it for yourself:

Nice hat, huh?

The U.S. military Empire as a family's "big dumb boat" analogy is brilliant. It's an excess that our country can ill afford in economic times such as these. Yet we keep pouring trillions of tax payer dollars into this sinkhole for some inane notion of world dominance and to make us feel more patriotic and allegedly safer. As Maher suggests, let's cut our military spending in half and see who invades us. We sure could use the currently wasted cash to reduce our strangling debt from the past 9 years of elective wars, ill-advised tax cuts, and irresponsible non-regulation of our rigged financial system.

Like the great satirists, Maher's purpose in this "New Rule" is to ultimately display the folly of our country's behavior. We want the government to cut taxes but we still want the government to provide the key services we've come to depend on. Like children, Teabaggers—and many non-Teabagging Americans—don't seem to understand that there really is no free lunch. Everything costs money and someone has to pay for all of it. If we want granny to receive the health benefits of Medicare, we have to pay for it. If we want our parents to enjoy the benefits of Social Security they worked so many years for when they retire, we have to pay for it. If we want our roads maintained and our schools functioning and the water we drink to be clean and safe, we have to pay for it. It's that simple. And as Maher suggests, instead of funneling so much of our dear cash resources into military-industrial companies that primarily benefit the oligarchy of executives that run those companies and too much of our economy, maybe, just MAYBE, we should get serious about fiscal responsibility and slash our military budget by trillions. Maybe then the teabaggers and every stripe of American will benefit and quit complaining that we as a society are spending money on each other.


Wednesday, April 07, 2010

MUSIC: Vampire Weekend's Contra

This review originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Illinois Entertainer.

(XL Recordings)

For those like myself who do give a fuck about an Oxford Comma—as I suspect Vampire Weekend does despite their apparent disdain—precision, clarity, and imagination are the core of invention. Nobody sounds like Vampire Weekend. They sound like bits and pieces of a lot of familiar musics, but since they appeared in 2008 with their eponymous debut, theirs has been a singular sound. Which presents a problem for album number two: is this unique musical amalgam a one-note, one-album sound, or can the band expand on its debut and make it worth a return trip?

The answer is mostly yes.

Contra is undoubtedly a VW album. It’s still essentially Western Afro-pop by way of smarty-pants Columbia grads, but this time around what sounded a little thin and reedy on Vampire Weekend is much fuller, more lush, and more rhythmically varied. Like earlier bands that built their foundations on rhythms foreign to most rock fans (Talking Heads, XTC, The Feelies), VW songs succeed or falter primarily on the strength of the rhythm beds. Despite the loose feel of these songs, drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio play with remarkable precision, creating in-the-pocket grooves that are so inviting and playful that they’re hard to resist. The bottom end of “California English,” though alternately spare and spastic, provides the perfect rhythm bed for singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig and guitarist/keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij’s flitting and astral melodies. The band pushes the debut sound here with (thankfully) brief flashes of Auto-Tune and a punctuating string section. The slow and gentle “Taxi Cab” pushes the sound even farther by subtraction: a thick, pulsing bass, some grand and harpsichord-y piano lines, hand claps, and Koenig’s surprisingly versatile and vulnerable voice create the soundtrack to this break-up tale of regret and the girl from the right side of the tracks (“You were standing on another track/Like a real aristocrat”). There are plenty of the jubilant, Loketo-style bubbling guitars that so clearly defined VW’s debut, but now the over-used Paul Simon’s Graceland reference/comparison indicates sheer critical laziness.

Lyrically, Vampire Weekend seems a J.D. Salinger band—or a Royal Tenenbaums band for those who don’t know any better. Their songs are peopled with yacht club kids (“Funny how the other private schools had no Hapa Club”), eggheady word play (“Contra Costa, Contra Mundum, contradict what I say”—a freakin’ papal reference!), and undergrads who traffic in white sailing pants, Steely Dan, and exceptional blow. No beef with that—they’re interesting people—and Koenig’s language play is really quite refreshing. In the propulsive “Cousins,” Koenig characterizes two cousins by family economic status: one “was born with ten fingers and you’re gonna use them all” and the other’s “birth right is interest, you could just accrue it all.” Vampire Weekend isn’t a blue-collar band, but there’s a bazillion of those out there, right?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

POLITICS: Health Care Reform Calculus

As Roadkill readers may recall, a couple of months ago I posted about the need to kill the Senate Health Care Reform. It’s essentially a massive financial giveaway to the Insurance industry that requires the industry to do very little to change their way of doing business. We, the American people, will pay most of the billions of dollars for the 30 million-plus currently uninsured who will be mandated to buy some form of health insurance from the very industry that has been ripping off the citizenry and state and local governments for decades. This fact has been underreported in both the MSM media and the rabidly conservative media.

The bill remains a lousy idea in my opinion.

So what if I was a House or Senate member who had to vote on this bill and the reconciliation “fixes” attached to it? It’s now the final hour—meaningful votes must be cast to determine if this bill will or will not become law.

Honestly, I don’t know how I would vote.

I listened closely this past week when Representative Dennis Kucinich, a staunch opponent of the Senate bill, spoke to the media to explain why he had decided to change his mind and vote for the bill. Kucinich made some very good points. There ARE some important though modest insurance reforms that will directly affect everyone in the country. Prohibiting rescission and stopping insurance companies from denying coverage because of preexisting conditions will impact millions of American lives for the better.

Other parts of the Senate bill, like closing the donut hole for Medicare prescription drugs, investing in streamlining electronic medical records systems, and allowing small businesses to join together and negotiate for better insurance coverage and prices are very practical, cost-saving changes that will benefit all Americans.

Kucinich made clear that, even if/when this ugly bill becomes law, he’ll begin the fight along with other progressives to change the worst elements of the bill and find a way to get a public option or single-payer, Medicare For All system made part of our health care system. It seems his rationale, also voiced by so many politicians, experts, and commentators, is to take what we can get now despite the warts and then spend the next few years making piecemeal changes to the legislation until it actually reforms the health insurance industry and serves the best needs of Americans.

This approach seems reasonable to me. So maybe I would vote for it now and hope my fellow Representatives and Senators would work to improve the overall health insurance and health care system in our country. But that would take courage. And it would mean challenging the insurance, pharmaceutical, and hospital lobbies and telling them that we elected officials are going to do what’s best for the American people regardless of how it effects the lobbies’ bottom lines and profit margins.


Phew! That’s hilarious!

Can you imagine a majority of our Congressional leaders speaking and especially voting with that kind of courage?

Ain’t gonna happen. If they couldn’t muster the civic fortitude when the Democrats, the only political party in the past century that has even attempted to change our nation’s ridiculous health insurance system, held a clear majority in both houses of Congress as well as the White House, do you really think they’ll get the job done anytime in the near future? The near decade even?

So maybe I wouldn’t join the apparent majority to vote “yea” on this bill. It has taken a year of heated, sometimes vitriolic debate that sucked the air out of all the other pressing challenges our country faces and this is the best our Congress could come up with? This crap sandwich of a reform bill? Are the modest insurance reforms in the bill worth the MASSIVE bribe to the insurance companies? I don't know that they are.

And if I was a Democratic Representative or Senator faced with a decision on this bill, what of the leader of our party? Do I trust that if I vote for this lousy bill President Obama will fight to make the changes necessary to improve it and get the country closer to an equitable reform of health insurance?

That’s easy: no. I wouldn’t trust that Obama would fight to improve this bill. Despite his recent push and bully-pulpit exhortations to make history by passing this bill, his “leadership” on this very important issue has been at best disappointing and at worst spineless. When he ran for President, Obama garnered a lot of support because he pledged to reform the health insurance system—his primary tool being a public insurance option to compete with the insurance companies. The vast majority of his supporters knew exactly what that meant: the insurance companies would be forced to lower their prices and change their behavior in order to compete. Recall that Obama derided his opponents Hillary Clinton and then John McCain for suggesting that a mandate to make everyone buy insurance should be part of the reform.

So what did we get? No public option and an insurance mandate.

So why would I, as a Senator or Representative, trust that this President would magically rise to the occasion to roll up his sleeves and fight long and hard in the trenches with us to make the needed improvements to this bill? Is it just as likely that in trying to make future changes to this legislation to force down the costs of insurance that Obama would negotiate away the modest reforms this current bill includes?

For any Democrat voting on this bill this weekend, the choice is lousy. One of President Obama’s refrains throughout this yearlong debate is not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Fair enough. Wise words. There is some good in this bill, some good that will directly affect our lives. But there’s too much rotten in it as well, which will also affect our lives. So maybe the new refrain is not to let the plenty of rotten be the enemy of the scraps of good?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

MUSIC: Singles of the Decade (part 2)

Sorry about the delay on the rest of this list—good thing the music of the 2000s didn’t change in the interim. Below are singles 5 through 1, as well as a handful of Honorable Must-Mentions.

Let me know what you think. Agree? Disagree? What were your favorites of the last decade?

Best Singles of the 2000s continued . . .

5. “Hey Ya!,” Outkast (from Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, 2003)
I know for sure that the first time I heard this song it was on the radio just before the album was released. I later saw the super-fun video featuring 8 different incarnations of Outkast’s Andre 3000. What I know for sure at this time is that I don’t know for sure how much that video played into my initial obsession with this song. But I couldn’t get enough of this song—still can’t. I think it’s the breadth of what is essentially a very 2000s pop song that keeps me coming back to “Hey Ya!” It’s an unabashed amalgam of pop styles from across the decades. The rhythm bed blends hip-hop and a simple backbeat that could be heard on many early ‘60s singles. The ascending synth swizzle evokes bubble gum pop, the acoustic strumming that ebbs and flows throughout the song would seem incongruous if it weren’t the one of the primary rhythm elements, and Andre 3000’s rappy singing splits the difference in the verses and switches to true toaster style during the call and response sections (a characteristics of some early R&B/soul hits). No real truths imparted in the lyrics: guy’s pumped cause he’s in love and then immediately begins to doubt the whole notion of “forever.” Fair enough—but when this song is cranked and you’re singing along, even the nonsense chorus and call and response seem to be talking about something. Something fun.

4. “A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action,” JXL/Elvis Presley (2002)
Never been much of a remix fan—too often the remixes are subtle or unremarkable changes that elicit so many shoulder shrugs or incompatible beats grafted onto a track to comic or silly effect. Not the case with JXL’s remix of this 1968 Elvis Presley track. Created for a 2002 Nike World Cup promotion, the song exploded onto the airwaves and charts and even onto the top-selling Elv1s 30 #1 Hits collection released later that year (it was track #31). What JXL does is masterful: he takes a decent suggestive Elvis song and turns it into an aggressive and highly sexual come on—purely by charging up the rhythm bed and adding some whirls, scratches, and other effects from the circa-2002 DJ repertoire. The original moderate tempo 2-minute track becomes a pumping, speedy six-minute workout. The benignly sexy Elvis of ’68 sounds much more insistent here. When he sings/demands “Close your mouth and open up your heart and baby satisfy me” amid the pounding drums and surging horns, you can hear an irritation and determination in his voice that’s nowhere to be found on the original. So you do what he says. He is the King. And he does say please.

3. “Say Hey (I Love You),” Michael Franti & Spearhead (from All Rebel Rockers, 2008)
I admit it: sappiest damn song on the list. Who’d guess that Michael Franti, one-time hyper-political rapper of The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, would one day pen such a sweetly joyous and celebratory reggae-ska hymn to a human emotion so pure and simple? Love here is a refuge and solace from the pain and ghetto games and junkies Franti sees all around him: “I don’t want to write a love song for the world/I just want to write a song about a boy and a girl.” Even the righteous get weary, and when the more you see the less you know, knowing one thing, one love, is sometimes all in the world you need. All this sentiment would be mere mush were it not for the buoyant beat and rolling rhythm that thumps at the heart of this song. It’s all on the upbeat: the chinging keyboard comps, persistent maracas, and counterpointing handclaps create an organic groove rich and wide enough to gather and mitigate all kinds of misfortune and regret. “Say Hey (I Love You)" has quickly found a spot right next to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” in my catalogue of songs that can instantly lift my spirits no matter how bleak.

2. “Do You Realize??,” The Flaming Lips (from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, 2002)
Sometimes this song is too much to bear emotionally. Other times, it makes me feel a surge of life and energy and connects me directly to the cosmos we’re tearing around in. This is pop music of a symphonic nature. Washed in melodic synthesizers draped over a spare, chiming acoustic guitar and grounded by tympanic drums seemingly recorded in another room, this song speaks of the eternal, the celestial, the mysterious absolute. I’m not kidding. There’s a child-like awe to Wayne Coyne’s voice as he sings lyrics like this:
“Do you realize—that you have the most beautiful face
Do you realize—we're floating in space
Do you realize—that happiness makes you cry
Do you realize—that everyone you know someday will die”

I mean, how much more of life can you cover in four lines? For me, this song becomes overwhelming when I allow the wall of sound and Coyne’s voice and lyrics to evoke specific images from my life. I see my son’s beautiful newborn face resting in my arms and my mother’s 20-year-old beautiful face smiling down at me as a child. There are entire worlds, entire lives in those images. And the simple fact of that last line, when I really think on it, really think about the people that make up my life’s mosaic, and despite the people I’ve already lost, can be both unbearable and strangely, cosmically comforting. “Do You Realize??” that pop music art can do this to you? “Do You Realize??” how awesome that is?

1. “American Idiot,” Green Day (from American Idiot, 2004)
Best song of the 2000s from the best rock ‘n’ roll album of the 2000s. In three minutes, Green Day revives what punk music was and always should be: protest music. But a song also has to be the right song for the right time to truly be great. “American Idiot” was. Released in the fall of 2004, just as a majority of the U.S. population was beginning to awaken from its fear-induced post-9/11 torpor, the song encapsulated the anger and resistance that a minority of this country had been feeling since the Bush/Cheney administration began manipulating the country into an illegitimate war in the name of “protecting the homeland.” But that wasn’t Green Day’s sole target: they took direct aim at our over-saturated media culture, the willful dumbing down of citizens by hysterical “edutainment” media, rednecks, gay- and immigrant-bashers, and American idiots so easily swayed by paranoia and propaganda (two things the Bush administration and its media mouthpieces did very well). The band holds nothing back, either in musical performance or lyrical delivery and intent. From the first urgent licks that open the song to its sharp, abrupt end, “American Idiot” has both the traditional punk speeds—fast and faster. Musically, it’s a very simply song: bashing drums, an unrelenting, propulsive bass line, and some big, chunky guitar riffs. But Green Day rips into it like it’s the first, last, and only time they’ll ever play the song. Billie Joe Armstrong spits out vitriolic lines like this: “Don’t want to be an American idiot/One nation controlled by the media/Information age of hysteria/It’s going out to idiot America.” What better way to describe the past wired decade in the U.S.A.?

Honorable Must-Mentions
“Let That Show,” The Pernice Brothers (from The World Won’t End, 2001)
Fantastic chiming guitar pop and lithe harmonies. The sweet sound masks a fairly clear-headed lyric about ego, self-obsession, and the complete inadequacy of the two. Key lyric: “Was a time, when I thought I could talk down to all my friends/It’s a crime, when I think of how the sun revolved around me then.”

“Feel Free,” Jay Farrar (from Sebastopol, 2001)
“Breathe in all the diesel fumes/Admire the concrete landscaping/And doesn’t it feel free.” On just about every album he puts out, Farrar nails a tune that renders a sober view of America and its ideals. The spare, resigned sound of “Feel Free” evokes a car ride from Chicago to Milwaukee, where there’s always traffic and plenty of concrete.

“E-Pro,” Beck (from Guero, 2005)
Beck reclaims “na-na-na-na-na-na-na” as a hook in this thick mix of distorted guitar and fat-assed rhythm. His lyrics are as surreal as usual—“Handing out a confection of venom,” “Hammer my bones on the anvil of daylight”—so it’s hard to know precisely what the hell he’s on about. But this sure sounds awesome cranked loud.

“A-Punk,” Vampire Weekend (from Vampire Weekend, 2008)
So familiar yet completely different. When this came tumbling out of radios and web sites in 2008, with its weird blend of jumbled rhythm and wiry ska guitar and lilting flute, it was a thoroughly alluring head scratcher. “Look outside at the raincoats coming, say oh.” Say what? Say, what other crazy rhythms you guys got?

“Crazy,” Gnarls Barkley (from St. Elsewhere, 2006)
All it takes is a snippet of this song and it’s stuck in my head for the whole day. Sometimes longer. One of the best soul tracks released in decades. Cee-Lo Green’s delivery harkens back to The O’Jays and the Isley Brothers, and Danger Mouse abets the whole affair with a lush, string-laden track that would’ve sounded right at home on Top 40 radio circa 1975.

“Jesus Walks,” Kanye West (from College Dropout, 2004)
Despite what he’s become as a media figure, and even despite the relatively traditional religious belief underlying this song, “Jesus Walks” was an explosive entre into the spotlight for West as a performer. The sinning soldier in the modern world (and rap game) metaphor works, and West takes on a myriad of targets that plague African-Americans as well as the rest of us.

“All Summer Long,” Kid Rock (from Rock N Roll Jesus, 2007)
Anyone who can successfully link samples from Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” deserves any self-respecting rock ‘n’ roll fan’s respect—if only for sheer incongruous imagination. It’s hard to shake the chorus of this song once it gets into your head, and trite as some of the lyrics may be, it’s a heartfelt look back at life by a hard-partying midwestern guy nearing 40 years old. “Sometimes I'll hear that song and I'll start to sing along/And think man I'd love to see that girl again.” Now who can’t get behind that?

See below for Best Singles 6-10 . . .

Thursday, January 21, 2010

MUSIC: Singles of the Decade (part 1)

Yeah, yeah––I know this is a little late in the game. Most music outlets have already closed the book on the sounds of 2009 and the 2000s as a decade. I’m nowhere near involved with the day to day of the music industry as I was the last time we closed out a decade (a century even!) in 1999, so while I remain a huge music fan, my perspective has become much more a fan’s than an industry insider. But in reading lots of year- and decade-end “Best ofs,” it struck me that if anything defined the 2000s in music it was the return of the single.

The album format isn’t quite dead––yet–—but what the rise and dominance of file sharing, widespread broadband access, iTunes, and the iPod accomplished in the past decade is nothing short of revolutionary. Undermining the over-priced CD, the digital revolution effectively returned the music world to the pre-Sgt. Peppers era where individual songs ruled–—except today it’s done with nifty gadgets and we don’t have to actually venture into a store to purchase music. The digital revolution also effectively killed off the record store–—a truly lamentable byproduct–—but that’s a topic for another post.

For the first few years of the 2000s I was thoroughly entrenched in the machinations of a changing music industry while serving as editor for a major regional music magazine. In the last half of the decade, I progressively returned to my music fan roots. As a kid in the early ‘70s, I listened to rock radio constantly, always seeking out what’s new and trying to find music–—primarily singles–—that made me want to jump around like a spastic, made me feel elated and unstoppable and what I imagined “sexy” might have been. I picked up WLS’ weekly Top 40 listings at record stores, bought lots of 45 rpm singles, and spent most of my New Year’s Eve with one ear on the Big 89 (WLS) countdown of the year’s top songs. As the late-‘70s rolled around and I got more serious about music, I started hanging out in record stores, looking at and reading album covers way more than I bought–—though I bought a lot more music as each year progressed. The album was the thing: were the dozen songs quality or not? Did the break in sides make sense? I started picking up music press like Rolling Stone and Creem, as well as the Illinois Entertainer, and devoured everything I could about new artists, new releases, and reviews–—I read a shitload of reviews—–and began what was certainly the initial stages of my future career: arguing with friends about music.

Of course today I don’t really listen to music the same way I did as a young burgeoning music fan—–once a music critic, always a music critic–—but for the past half a decade I’ve been able to experience a little bit of that earlier, untainted response to new songs as I encounter them. Which has been pretty cool after a couple of decades of being saturated in all the information and hype and back-story behind every new release before the songs even hit my ears. So the following list of the best songs of the 2000s consists exclusively of the songs I heard over the past decade that I liked the most, I listened to the most, I find myself humming years after having first heard them, that make me live my life more intensely, that kill me in some elemental way, that make me want to play air guitar or jump around or inflict on other people.

I’ve stuck with the traditional 10 here, with honorable must-mentions afterward, and I’ve tried to put them in some kind of order, though truth be told, aside from maybe the top 2 or 3, which I know are the best songs of the first decade of the 21st century, most of the tracks listed here could change in order on any given day.

Best Singles of the 2000s

10. “Last Nite” The Strokes (from Is This It, 2001)
The simple, persistent, bashy drum spine of this song is perhaps its finest feature, though Julian Casablancas’ scratchy and slightly disinterested vocals and the ragged guitars certainly contribute to the overall urgent effect. Not much going on lyrically here–—someone’s “baby” is turned off and apparently no one really cares or understands—–but sometimes just a craggy shout of “last night” accompanied by exactly the right rhythmic down stroke is enough to induce some kind of head bob or fist pump. Helping to kick-off the retro New Wave garage rock sound of the early 2000s, “Last Nite” has a timeless sound, which is why it may be the band’s sole but worthy contribution to “classic rock” radio in the 2020s . . .

9. “Knocked Up,” Kings of Leon (from Because of the Times, 2007)
Any band with the balls big enough to open an album with a smoldering 7-minute song gets my attention—–especially when it’s a knock out like “Knocked Up.” Barely 20 years old, the members of Kings of Leon have created such a rich, empathetic story in sound and lyric that it’s hard not to be effected by the confused teens who “don’t care what nobody says/We’re gonna have a baby.” They’re blindly fleeing their hometown and the rolling bass and tense, pulsing guitar capture perfectly the clandestine and ominous sound of such an escape. Punctuated by some harping chirps lifted/inspired by King Crimson’s “Sheltering Sky,” the song explodes twice in a short cacophony of teenage anger and questioning (“Where we gonna go?”). The song is related to Springsteen’s classic “Born To Run,” only these two tramps aren’t grabbing for the brass ring—they’re angry, rebellious, and completely unsure of what they’re doing. The most telling lyric is: “[She’s] always mad and usually drunk/But I love her like no other.”

8. “December 4th,” Danger Mouse/Jay-Z (from The Grey Album, 2004)
We can argue about the first or the best mash-ups, but hands down this is the greatest example of what the form can be and do. While the juxtaposition of The Beatles gentle acoustic “Mother Nature’s Son” and Jay-Z’s confessional “December 4th” may seem utterly incongruous, DJ Danger Mouse found the riffs and the way to make each song something new in this mash-up. Danger Mouse plucks the repetitive acoustic strumming of “Mother’s Nature Son” and reinforces it with a thick, clipped hip-hop beat loop that is catchy as hell (more so than both of the song’s source material, even). Jay-Z’s original is overblown, cheesy, and self-aggrandizing, undermining great lyrics and cheapening his mom’s narrative interludes. McCartney’s “Mother Nature’s Son,” while romantically pastoral, has always been one of The White Album’s cheesier moments. Danger Mouse scrapes away the cheese from both tracks and creates a multi-layered masterpiece that adds remarkable depth to Jay’s great lyrics. (Note: not available legally, but easy to find in more nefarious ways.)

7. “I Will Possess Your Heart,” Death Cab for Cutie (from Narrow Stairs, 2008)
The four-minute-plus instrumental intro to this 8-minute opus is absolutely entrancing, pulling you deeper and deeper into the song by sheer dint of the taut musical dynamism. The methodical build of instruments is dramatic, the far-away piano ebbing and flowing amid an unwavering bass line and some quietly distorted guitars. When the lyrics kick in half way through the song, you’re almost surprised that there are words and a voice–—something of an interruption of the sonic journey you’ve already invested so much energy and imagination to. The fact that Ben Gibbard’s voice is so unassuming and his lyrics are about purely obsessive love (“You reject my advances and desperate pleas/I won’t let you let me down so easily”) fit the music so perfectly that any interruption grudge dissipates and the first half of the song begins to take on new meaning. Pretty neat trick for a rock song.

6. “My Doorbell,” The White Stripes (from Get Behind Me Satan, 2005)
Visceral. Immediate. Urgent. I believe every single word and note and missed beat of this tune. Waiting for someone you love to call on you–—how vulnerable and irrational and plaintive and pissed can a human being be? From the first flat thudding drum beat and edgy shaker that open the song, you know someone’s got something pressing to express. Soon joined by simple but persistent piano comps and Jack White’s cracked sweet voice, the song never lets up in its earnest and imperative questioning of WHY DON’T YOU RING MY FUCKING DOORBELL AND WHY AM I SUCH A FUCKING SOP FOR NEEDING YOU TO RING ANYWAY? (Even his friends won’t come and save him from such wallowing.) It’s a rather simple song, musically and lyrically, but everything sounds like it’s just slightly off in such a masterful way that the result is a kind of soul music that’s new and old school and far too rare these days.

Stay tuned for singles 5–1 (coming soon!) . . .