Crider And I Disagree To Agree

Recently the great Paul Crider wrote an "oblique" defense of feminism over at Sweet Talk Conversation. It is very interesting and well worth the read, so as they say in the blogging business, "read the whole thing."

Fond as I am of Crider and his ideas, I've never quite been able to warm up to his affinity for feminism - not because I'm hostile to gender equality, but because I don't see feminism as a viable path toward achieving it. In an odd sort of way, I believe Paul's recent blog post articulates most of the points justifying my belief. Even so, his navigation of these points leads him to feminism, and mine leads me away from it.

Paul Crider and I seldom disagree about anything, so I have to wonder: Do we actually disagree on this topic? Well, that sounds like great fodder for a blog post, so let's get to it.

Why Are People Hostile To Feminism?

Crider isn't afraid to tackle the tough issues head-on, which is why he addresses them right out of the gate:
It turns out some folks are really hostile to feminism. Interestingly, this sentiment comes not just from misogynists, but from genuinely nonsexist people. The hostility seems to stem from the conspicuous existence of feminist ideas and feminist people that are absurd. Statements like “All men are rapists”, “All heterosexual sex is rape“, or “Straight white men cannot suffer discrimination” are all statements that have been uttered by feminists. Then there are the disproportionate public shame campaigns, often whipped up on Twitter, like Shirtgate or Nobel laureate biochemist Tim Hunt getting shamed into resignation over some sexist remarks. Shame is a weapon regularly used by feminists, especially against white males who express frustration at romantic difficulty, with epithets like “mouth-breathers, pimpled, scrawny, blubbery, sperglord, neckbeard, virgins, living in our parents’ basements, man-children” all too common (a list supplied by Scott Alexander). Feminists have been behind some truly scary assaults on free speech and due process, especially when it comes to college life and those accused of sexual assault.
I agree. Those certainly are some attractive reasons to eschew what Crider calls "the ideological impulse" toward feminism, aren't they?

Crider then takes this reasoning right where he needs to: He acknowledges that not all feminists are guilty of these things, but that it's impossible to suggest that the ones who really are guilty aren't "true" feminists. In other words, Crider acknowledges that feminists who do and say bad things are just as representative of feminism itself as are feminists who do not do and say bad things.

Feminism takes all kinds, good and bad; and the fact that feminism includes knaves along with other people is not a mark in favor of feminism. So this is two strikes against feminism right out of the gate: (1) Some feminists are knaves; (2) Feminism necessarily includes knaves.

At this point, a "feminism skeptic" ought to be looking for some attractive reasons to embrace feminism, reasons that are attractive enough to overcome the fact that the label itself will group you in with a significant number of knaves. What does Crider have to offer in that regard?

Feminism As A Lens

Crider's first point in feminism's favor is that it serves as "lens" through which to view and understand the world:
...[F]eminism should be viewed as a lens through which one views the world, bringing certain issues into sharper focus though also inevitably obscuring other details with particular biases. There is no lens-free option; without some kind of lens (theory), the world is a hopeless blur of disordered sensory data. Pretending to go sans-lens is simply to fail to acknowledge or even be aware of the lenses through which one does in fact peer. With a particular lens comes, in addition to a perspective and accompanying biases, a set of tools for understanding and deconstructing problems. This is acute for feminism, as one of the purposes of feminism is to highlight assumptions of a certain kind (gender).
Unfortunately, Crider never mentions why this particular lens is a better or more valuable lens than any other. So while it may be true that seeing the world through feminist eyes brings certain issues into sharper focus, the reader is left alone to wonder whether the view we end up with is more reflective of reality or less.

Indeed, every ideology brings certain issues into sharper focus, including ideologies almost universally understood to be negative. For example, anti-Semitism is a lens through which certain issues are brought into sharper focus, but the result is an unfair and heinous antipathy toward members of a particular ethnic group. Since we can all agree that anti-Semitism is a bad lens, we must generally concede that to justify any particular lens, we'll need some kind of evidence or argument that the "picture" we're getting from that lens is one worth seeing.

Too often, many accept on assumption the value of ideological feminism, which has come to mean not merely gender equality, but also a whole host of additional values. For example, the Feminist Women's Health Center lists among its core values a commitment "to reproductive freedom and justice," i.e. the belief that aborting a human fetus is a human right. If that were the only feminist organization that grouped pro-life abortion values in with broader feminism, then we might disregard it as an outlier - but it's not. The message is clear: Women who oppose abortion, but support gender equality simply aren't feminists.

And there is a long list of similar issues, all equally unnecessary to the over-arching goal of gender equality. Feminists are expected to favor Title 9 legislation. Feminists are expected to favor mandatory and ever-increasing amounts of maternity leave at an employer's or government's expense. Feminists are expected to favor government-provided day care. We need not conduct a deep dive into each of these issues to simply note that feminism is often articulated as a package-deal. If you're not all-in, you're not a feminist. (Unless, of course, the over-arching goal of ideological feminism is not gender equality at all.)

True, some feminist groups attempt to advocate pro-life feminism or libertarian feminism, but these groups are mostly outliers that are not representative of mainstream feminism. In some cases, as with pro-life feminism, they are single-issue groups promoting one non-feminist value (like opposition to abortion) ahead of the "rest" of the feminist agenda.

Whatever we might say about these outlying groups, they are few-enough and far-enough-between to warrant the following observation: If the feminist lens tends to bring "certain issues" into focus, then those issues are in somes cases illiberal and in almost all cases left-leaning.

How likely is it that viewing the world more often from the left results in an objectively more accurate picture, especially when it sometimes puts you at odds with the right to free speech? Unless you're a demagogue, not likely at all.

Fuzzy Feminism

Let's pause for a moment and consider two important concessions Crider has already made against feminism: First, that they are often enemies of free speech (I agree), and second that they are often against free markets, right-to-life viewpoints, and other non-leftist policy preferences (I agree). In light of that fact, it seems increasingly difficult to justify feminism as a means toward a more accurate view of the truth.

On some level, Crider seems to be agree with me on this, because his next set of points argues against orthodoxy. He writes that all ideologies are a "living conversation," and concludes that "The boundaries of what lies within and without the tradition become established by common understanding, but the boundaries are blurry and can move over time."

He goes further:
As a conversation, it is a category error to view feminism in toto as either true or false, right or wrong. Feminism contains too many voices contradicting one another at various levels for any blanket judgment to be meaningful. The feminist positions and behaviors above are often used to condemn feminism as a whole, but of course there are feminists who don’t hold those beliefs.
Once again, I agree. However, if something can neither be true or false, right or wrong, in toto, then how can it be viewed as good or bad, or indeed worthy of defense or worthy of condemnation?  What, in the end, is Crider actually defending?

What follows is a long discussion about the multitude of feminist "varieties," and how they should all count as feminism in the same sense that Catholic and Protestant are both Christians. One easy objection to this point is that comparing feminism to a religion ultimately defeats Crider's argument against orthodoxy.

But a more important criticism is this: The sexes ought to be equal for reasons of basic human dignity, not for metaphysical reasons. Any justification of feminism that can only be justified metaphysically is bound to be rejected by anyone whose views are rooted mainly in physics.

What I mean is, I think it's simply unfair to assign a lower legal value to a woman than to a man. I think this creates a systemic prejudice against a population that ultimately cannot be overcome through "just living your life." This isn't a metaphysical belief about fairness, it's a physical observation of legal outcomes. It's an empirical matter. We don't need a conversation about "what is justice?" in order to make our legal treatment of the sexes blind and equal. It's incumbent upon advocates of gender-superiority to make the case that systemic inequality is more just than equality.

Crider warns us right at the outset of his blog post: "I would like to defend feminism in a more direct and full-throated way, but I could only do so for my particular kind of liberal feminism." But since metaphysics broadly - and Crider's "epistemic virtue" in particular - are highly personal and individualized, I'm still left wondering, what is Crider actually defending?

He next warns us about the dangers of tribal thinking - a warning that I strongly agree with - but this is an odd warning to provide in the context of the defense of a particular tribe. He rightly implores feminists to root-out its worst arguments and dispense with them, but then suggests that non-feminists are not in a position to understand the extent to which it is already happening. Maybe not, but any ideology that has not yet rid itself of terrible arguments (or the aforementioned inclinations against free speech and non-leftist politics) is not ready for endorsement by any person who considers himself or herself a careful thinker. If feminism still has work to do on the inside, let it do its work before its insiders ask the rest of us to accept it as a worthy endeavor.

Feminism As A Set Of Ideas

At the end of Crider's post, he lists a set of concepts - developed within the feminist framework - that he says are worth "taking seriously regardless of worldview." A few of them are concepts that I myself cannot and will not take seriously, but I will leave that matter aside for a moment.

The real argument against that list of concepts is that each and every one of those concepts can be "taken seriously," and even fully accepted without the feminist label. To suggest that feminism is worthy of defense merely because it has resulted in a few good developments seems to me to be as misguided as accepting German nationalism merely because German culture has provided many important contributions to humankind. I accept the value of Beethoven's music without having to call myself "German at heart" or some such thing.

So the conclusion is obvious: The label really is superfluous. There is no need to accept a label like feminism. There appears to be no inherent value in the label itself. So long as you accept valuable ideas as being valuable, and reject bad arguments as being bad, then you're on the right track. Who could possibly disagree with that?

What conclusion does this lead Crider to make?
Though I’m a feminist myself, I don’t believe everyone must identify as a feminist. People will always have idiosyncratic reasons for both attachment to and disaffection from certain identities. And I have seen enough nonfeminist nonsexists in the wild to believe that the fruits of feminism can be enjoyed without universal identification under the F word.
Aha. So Paul Crider and I agree with each other after all. I thought so. :)


Concert Review: The Winery Dogs

Touring in support of their new album, Hot Streak, the Winery Dogs stopped in Dallas, Texas last night to give fans a taste of their live show. 

The venue was The Gas Monkey Live! theater, which I had never been to before. The venue itself was a rather pleasant surprise, hidden within a slightly-less-developed part of the metroplex near Dallas Lovefield Airport. Decorated with 19th Century throwback wall paper amid gothic mirrors and taxidermied hunting trophies, the theater stretches out from the main stage. It's lined with two elevated VIP areas for fans who prefer to sit during shows, and has several bars situated throughout the theater to serve drinks without creating long lines. The stage itself is elevated maybe 4 or 5 feet above the audience and is bookended with large screens, which receive a constant feed from live cameramen filming the show. The stage is set up with a rather elaborate lighting system, and a projector screen in the rear, giving the venue a sort of "big arena" feel, despite the intimate layout.

As I was waiting in line to enter the venue, I stuck up a conversation with a fellow fan. He said he was there to see the opening act, Kicking Harold, and that he'd actually never heard of the Winery Dogs before. I admitted that I'd never seen Kicking Harold before, and we both were a little taken aback by each other, and laughed. But on his passionate description of the band, I realized I had something to really look forward to in the opening act - which is a refreshing change from many other shows of this side, in which a well-connected local band ends up getting the opening slot, only to give a local-quality performance.

And Kicking Harold did not disappoint! From the opening chords, the band immediately took me back to the mid-90s music scene, when rock music was still witty, groovy, hard-hitting, melodic, and had youth appeal. In fact, after a couple of songs, I started to realize just how far pop rock has fallen in the last 20 years; that may be a topic for another blog post, but for the time being, it should serve as a testament to Kicking Harold's set. By way of comparison, Kicking Harold hold stylistic similarities to, say, Treble Charger or Eve 6. The overall vibe is decidedly punk/alternative rock, but it's delivered with sleek hard rock sensibilities. Add9 chords abound, and all three instruments deliver the goods with a respectable level of aggression. By the third song in, Kicking Harold had won the crowd over, which is fairly remarkable, considering that most Winery Dogs fans were there to see three of the "shreddiest" musicians in the business. And Kicking Harold, while awesome, is not much of a shredder's band. That, however, didn't stop them from closing their set with a genuinely badass Rush medley. By the time they left the stage, the audience wasn't just warmed up, we were on fire.

Finally, it was time for the Winery Dogs themselves. Just before they took the stage, I noted a few interesting things about their setup. 

First, Richie Kotzen was playing two of his signature Cornford half stacks, which surprised me since I was under the impression that he was touring with Marshalls. Boutique Cornford amplifiers, especially when paired with a Telecaster, deliver an incredibly rich guitar tone that is nonetheless a little on the low-gain side of the spectrum (especially by modern standards). The sound was stunning, and helped me understand just how much of a blues player Kotzen can be when he wants to be. 

Second, Mike Portnoy's drum set seems to have grown substantially since the previous Winery Dogs tours. This fact ought to appeal to the Portnoy fans in the audience, because he is really using the full drumkit in these songs.

Finally, I had known already that Billy Sheehan ran a two-amplifier setup to get his bass tone, but I hadn't realized what a fairly complicated setup that is. Last night, he was playing two bass amps with, I believe, five speaker cabinets and a rack full of gear.

The band kicked things off with "Oblivion," and "Captain Love," the first two songs from the new album. That set the stage for a night of predominantly new music, which was great news for me, since I was anxious to hear how the new songs translated in a live context. The verdict on that question, by the way, is "resoundingly well." At one point, Kotzen paused to ask whether anyone in the crowd had any "personal favorites" from the new record. "Devil You Know!" someone shouted, to which Kotzen replied, "We're not ready for that one yet. Next time around, I promise." 

I was pleased that the band even played "Think It Over" and "Regret," which stand out for being two electric piano songs on an otherwise guitar-driven set. The latter was brought out during the encore, and the rendition was, in a word, phenomenal. Kotzen began on the electric piano, and as the song reached its final crescendo, he moved over to electric guitar for a stunningly emotional solo and a big finish.

Instrumentally, the band was at the top of their game. Several extended solo sections allowed each player to show the audience what they do best. Mike Portnoy's drum solo, in particular, stood out for its wit and charm. I won't spoil the "surprise" feature to that drum solo (although I'm sure it's been revealed already by fan videos on YouTube), but suffice it to say it was both a big change from Portnoy's Dream Theater days, and a charmingly modern take on the drum solo.

Being the guitar player that I am, I was anxious to get a close look at some of Richie Kotzen's more challenging licks in hopes of figuring out "how the heck does he do that?" Having gotten about as close a look as I'll ever get, I can faithfully report: I still have no idea. His playing remains as fresh and innovative as ever. 

The Winery Dogs have been getting some amazing press about their live show, and having finally seen them up-close-and-personal myself, I'm glad I got to find out what all the fuss is about. The reports are not exaggerated. They put on an excellent show, and in particular I think it's interesting to see this particular snapshot of the band as it exists today. They've clearly started to find what it is that sets them apart as a group of live performers, and I imagine their live show will continue to grow and develop by the end of this tour and into the next.

There are still plenty of upcoming dates, so my advice is to hunt down some tickets to the show nearest you. It is well worth it.


Situationism And Libertarianism

Long-time Stationary Waves readers know that I am critical of paradigms because they limit our ability to allow for alternate explanations. So while Situationist analysis feels like a good way to analyze social psychology, it's easy to abuse it to the point that it becomes a "just-so" story. I was relieved, then to read a statement Philip Zimbardo makes in his book The Lucifer Effect suggesting that we look first at Situational factors, then consider Dispositional factors only after you've exhausted the Situational analysis. I like this because it displays an admirable dose of intellectual humility; Zimbardo doesn't say he has all the answers, but he does claim to have some.

Meanwhile, as I "practice at home" a little, I have been discovering how powerful Situational anlysis can be. In particular, keeping the overall situational context in mind when evaluating observed behavior has the effect of making me a much more forgiving and empathetic person by discouraging me from drawing unfair conclusions about people.

I have paired this perspective with something David Henderson recently wrote:
When I deal with angry cops, I think of how I dealt with my father when he got irrationally angry. I pictured him as a big angry bear. You don't morally judge a bear; he does what bears do. I didn't morally judge my father--or, at least, tried not to appear to judge him in the moment. I just treaded carefully.
Situationism is a good piece to add to Henderson's already-good advice because it reminds us that, in some other situation or in a slightly different set of circumstances, we're the bear.

That's one example of how Situationism pairs well with libertarian ethics. There are more. Today at EconLog, Bryan Caplan published a wonderful post about the adverse impact of what he calls the "social undesirability bias," which I have noticed but never fully articulated. It's an excellent post, so please do read the whole thing. Down below it, commentator "Ben Kennedy" writes:
Sometimes I feel that some of the stronger anti-state Libertarian rhetoric falls into this category. One can easily immerse themselves in the opinion that not only is government incompetent, it is essential merciless gang of thieves that parasitizes society etc etc. Of course there is some truth to this position, e.g. the insights of public choice theory. However, the case is regularly overstated - I'm pretty sure the nice lady in the children's section of my local library is not an evil parasite (and most policemen are perfectly nice people as well)
Kennedy is probably right that "some rhetoric" falls into this category, and yet look at his counter-examples. Notice anything special about them? They are strongly steeped in dispositional analysis. The government can't be "parasitic," because, after all, many nice people he knows work in the library or on the police force.

It's a powerful comment, but it is made much weaker by a situational understanding of the state. Tasked with burning books, would the nice lady at the library quit her job, drag her feet, or acquiesce without even so much as question? If that seems like a silly example, then let's pretend she's not a librarian, but a county clerk, and let's pretend she's not asked to burn books, but to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Now the "libertarian" orientation of the librarian goes against my own personal view, but the result is clear: The nice lady doesn't quit. She drags her feet and makes a big stink over it, then ultimately goes back to her job and complies with the law.

If you think this doesn't matter because, hey, she can go sit on a tack because gay marriage is the law now, sucker! then you're missing the point. For two hundred years, gay marriage was against the law, and county clerks enforced that law. They were all nice people in a rotten situation, and that rotten situation was the state.

As for nice police officers, I've met them, too. But I've also seen the evidence: there are a lot of nice people sticking up for other nice people who did bad things in rotten situations.

Situational analysis allows us to understand why people do the things they do, but it doesn't exonerate them. If you know that, say, being a prison guard is a high-risk situation in terms of making people do bad things, and you decide to become a prison guard anyway, long before those situation forces exert themselves on you, then you're morally culpable. That's true for the same reason that a heroin addict is morally culpable for his addiction long before he's actually addicted, because the risks of heroin injection are already widely understood.

Ultimately, pairing Situationism with libertarianism makes good intuitive sense, provides a way to come to clear moral decisions without unnecessarily antagonizing good people, and consistently works with traditionally libertarian ideas like public choice theory and behavioral economics.


Err On The Side Of Morality

I don't remember the quote exactly, but at some point Ayn Rand wrote that there are "sundry libertarians" who accept Objectivism's conclusions but reject either Objectivism's metaphysics or its epistemology, I forget which.

I don't want to comment on that, specifically, but the quote came to mind when I started reading this post from Robert Murphy. Reaching for a "gotcha" against open borders advocate Alex Tabarrok, he remarks that if you don't think it's okay to use guns to prevent immigration, then you must also not think it's okay to use guns to defend yourself in any other context. The gist of Bob's point is that, on some level, we all accept the use of violence as a deterrent against being attacked, so when Tabarrok claimed that doing so is morally problematic with respect to migration, Bob moved in for the "kill."

The ensuing comments made it clear that Bob's view is a common one, and that view basically boils down to, hey, if you violate the Non-Aggression Principle against me, then I will make you pay! My problem with that is that it seems to violate the spirit of the NAP. The whole point of this principle is to highlight the fact that a peaceful society requires little more than clearly defined rights coupled with a society full of broadly well-intentioned individuals.

The NAP is not, as some people seem to believe, a justification for surrounding your property with mines and hungry alligators in a moat and daring someone to trespass. That kind of attitude might be consistent with the NAP, but it is fully bereft of the kind of thoughts a non-aggressive person should probably have.

In other words, it accepts the Non-Aggression Principle, but rejects its metaphysical underpinnings.

It sometimes seems that there are a great many of us who view issues this way. That whole Civil War thing is another classic example: it's clear that, despite the rhetoric, human slavery was a major component of the Civil War. If one were to defend the Confederacy for all those technical states-rights reasons, that person might have a consistent and logical argument in his or her favor. But still: SLAVERY. You know?

If you're escaping a major moral indictment on a philosophical technicality, then you might have the better argument, but you're still immoral. Our purpose as moral agents in a society is not to push the boundaries of moral reasoning in order to get ourselves off the hook, but rather to err on the side of morality.

Album Review: The Winery Dogs - Hot Streak

I've been struggling for about a week now to figure out how to write a review of the new Winery Dogs album, Hot Streak. The struggle I'm having is that the album is so good that I don't just want to write "a" review, I want to write the review that needs to be written.

If I wanted to write "a" review of the album, then I'd do what other reviews appear to be doing: I'd start with a brief synopsis of how the band came together (there's a bit of music history in that story), mention the respective band members' musical pedigrees, make a big deal about their musical chops, mention that this is their second album, and then say something to the effect of, "The Winery Dogs continue on a hot streak, indeed! Yuk yuk yuk..."

I don't fault other reviewers for writing that sort of thing, but my criticism is that nothing in those reviews gives the reader any incentive to take an involved and critical journey into Hot Streak and come to a real appreciation for what they've managed to accomplish here.

I'm not even sure that I myself can write a review like that - hence my aforementioned struggle. But, I'm going to try, so here it is...

And Now, For The Review...

People write a lot about Richie Kotzen, Billy Sheehan, and Mike Portnoy, because all three musicians are famous for being technically proficient players. Furthermore, it's not as if any of them has worked very hard to reduce their reputation for being that way - and why should they? But their reputation for technique follows them, and makes up part of the "context" in which the listener hears new Winery Dogs music.

However, there is another part of the "context" that doesn't get written about quite as often: all three players, in addition to being some of the most gifted players in rock music, happen to have some serious jazz chops. Kotzen and Sheehan have explicitly explored jazz fusion on previous records and in prior bands. While Portnoy may not have done so, there's no denying that he has referenced jazz music many times in the course of his prog-metal career. 

I bring this up because, when you really dive deeply into Hot Streak, you start to notice its strong jazz underpinnings.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the album's title track. While the crux of the song is a set of straight-ahead, crashing power chords and rhythms, the band uses the spaces between the "important parts," to jettison into some admirably crazy jazz soloing. This culminates in what might be the standout solo of the album - maybe "solo of the year," if they gave awards for this sort of thing - from Richie Kotzen, near the end of the song.

Then there's the explosive, improvisational character of the music, an attribute that is driven home, song after song, by the drumming. While it's easy to criticize Dream Theater's back catalogue for being a little over-rehearsed, Mike Portnoy seems to have overcome all that with the Winery Dogs. This is especially true of the new album. The other criticism Portnoy recieves is that he "over-plays," and while those who are inclined to make that criticism will find plenty to object to on Hot Streak, the band really wouldn't "work" if he played any differently. He injects each track with an explosive energy that seems to elevate (no pun intended) the other members of the band to a degree of explosiveness that is not always there in their prior work. But, more than that, the improvisational feel in his drumming makes each song unfold like a controlled explosion the likes of which I have only really heard before in that other jazz-inflected rock band, Living Colour.

Just when you think that this is all Mike Portnoy has in his tool kit, however, he takes things way down for songs like "Fire" and "Think It Over," keeping the spirit of the songs in mind. In particular, his work on "Think It Over" is some of the most thoughtfully under-stated work of his career, involving some tasty hi-hat work that punctuates rhythm and lyrics alike.

Richie Kotzen, for his part, is in fine jazz form. I really enjoy the fact that he doesn't hesitate to play some deliciously jazzy electric piano and keyboards all over Hot Streak, especially since my favorite track on the previous record was the piano-inflected "Regret." Still, he never over-does it, so the band keeps their feet planted firmly in the kind of hard rock that appeals to their audience. As for his guitar playing, Kozten breaks out some phrasing we haven't heard from him since his work with Virtu and the Kotzen/Howe albums. I love this side of Kotzen's playing, so it's a delight for me to hear him break it out. Kotzen's having ditched the pick for a few years now, has managed to really develop his finger-style playing. His touch on the strings, combined with his Telecaster-into-a-Plexi setup gives his playing a bright top-end sparkle that we don't typically hear from shredders these days.

One great upshot of this, is that it leaves a midrange wedge large enough for Billy Sheehan's bass playing. This is so important, and so different from some of Sheehan's previous work, which I feel has often been diminished by a guitarist dominating the band's midrange spectrum and decreasing the listener's ability to really appreciate the Sheehanisms going on at the bottom-end. Indeed, Hot Streak, even more than the Winery Dogs debut album, manages to put Sheehan's tone right where it needs to be, and the result puts us in a better position to love what he's bringing to the table.

And what he happens to have brought is a groovy, R&B or maybe funk vibe to the overall sound. The contrast between Sheehan's overtly rock bass tones and the sort of jazzy, soul-music vibe in the bass lines on this album plays against type and expectation, and that very much works in the band's favor. It's like a series of pleasant surprises that unfold with each subsequent track.

This jazzy quality is present in each of the players' performances throughout the Hot Streak album. It is such a delightful surprise from a band that one expects to deliver straight-ahead, 80s-inflected hard rock. On one level, it makes each song more explosive, and on another level, it makes things so much tastier than they would be if they just stuck to the basic rock songwriting that made each of them individually famous.

Explosive and tasty - that's what you get with Hot Streak. The deeper you dive, the tastier it gets. There is no question that this is the best album I've heard this year. The Winery Dogs have put together a really great record, and I look forward to catching their nearest stop on their nation-wide tour.


Stop Writing Articles Like This

Today I read - partially, at least - two different articles on two different topics, both with the same problem. I'm not going to do the authors of those articles any favors by linking to them here, instead, I'll just tell you was that one article was a subjective rating of fast food sandwiches, and the other was an argument against buying an Xbox One. If you want to go hunt these piles of garbage down and read them for yourselves, that's the only hint I'll give you.

Both articles were written in a sort of, "Oh my god, I'm so hilarious, I'm so fed up with the way the world is, I just can't take it anymore" rhetorical style. It's supposed to be funny, but it's not. It's weirdly self-absorbed, containing, as it does, the assumptions that the reader cares about the subject matter in exactly the same way the author does, that the reader is largely incapable of coming up with as many "hilarious" sarcastic comments about the subject matter as the author is, and that the reader cares more about the author's commentary than information about the purported subject matter.

People just need to stop writing articles like this. Readers don't read articles to collect a list of tepid zingers about the Quarter-Pounder With Cheese. They might care about the Quarter-Pounder With Cheese, but the zingers are beside the point.

Now, you could argue that people don't care about my opinion, either, so why put it on my blog? Well, for one thing, my blog doesn't appear in anyone's Google News feed - not even my own. For another thing, nobody reads my blog, so that's a red herring.

Anyway, if you have information or analysis to share with the world, please do so. But I'm not reading your news articles for the affectation, I'm reading for the information and analysis. Behave accordingly.


Musical Existential Crisis - Part Two

Part One here.

Lady Gaga has a lot of musical integrity. We used to know this because she ripped off Bjork's award ceremony wardrobe. Bjork has artistic integrity, and Lady Gaga is doing the same kind of stuff, so it stands to reason that if Lady Gaga is dressed in the trappings of a great artist, she must be a great artist, too.

But these days, Lady Gaga isn't wearing food. Instead, she's all dolled-up in throwback glam and making records with Tony Bennett, and this is what tells us she has musical integrity.

The pairing of Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett isn't lost on me, but unless you keep up with these things, you probably haven't considered how bad this new, third flavor of the old grift really is. The record companies can only survive by insisting that there is no musical existential crisis. What they don't realize is that the very fact that Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett would un-ironically record an album together is all the proof anyone needs of the existential crisis.

Tony Bennett: A Primer

The success of this marketing campaign hinges on the audience's belief that Tony Bennett is a "jazz singer." No one who happens to know otherwise is young enough to care about popular music anymore, except for weirdos like me, and Wikipedia, which states (emphasis added):
...Bennett began his career as a crooner of commercial pop tunes. His first big hit was "Because of You", a ballad produced by Miller with a lush orchestral arrangement from Percy Faith. It started out gaining popularity on jukeboxes, then reached number one on the pop charts in 1951 and stayed there for ten weeks,[31] selling over a million copies.[30] This was followed to the top of the charts later that year[31] by a similarly-styled rendition of Hank Williams's "Cold, Cold Heart", which helped introduce Williams and country music in general to a wider, more national audience.[32] The Miller and Faith tandem continued to work on all of Bennett's early hits. Bennett's recording of "Blue Velvet" was also very popular and attracted screaming teenaged fans at concerts at the famed Paramount Theater in New York (Bennett did seven shows a day, starting at 10:30 a.m.)[33] and elsewhere.
It wasn't until later that Bennett got into jazz, evidently because his musical director didn't think his [Bennett's] career would last long otherwise. What happened next?
The result was the 1957 album The Beat of My Heart. It used well-known jazz musicians such as Herbie Mann and Nat Adderley, with a strong emphasis on percussion from the likes of Art Blakey, Jo Jones, Latin star Candido Camero, and Chico Hamilton. The album was both popular and critically praised.[8][44] Bennett followed this by working with the Count Basie Orchestra, becoming the first male pop vocalist to sing with Basie's band.[8] The albums Basie Swings, Bennett Sings (1958) and In Person! (1959) were the well-regarded fruits of this collaboration, with "Chicago" being one of the standout songs.[8][10]
In other words, in order to establish his reputation as a "jazz singer," Tony Bennett didn't actually decide to play some jazz. Instead, he simply hired a bunch of real jazz artists to play on his albums - to dress himself up in the trappings of jazz integrity - in order to lend him the reputation of having played with a bunch of jazz greats while merely churning out another couple of albums of pop standards.

What followed was a series of disappointing decades for Bennett, but in the 1990s he was able to capitalize on the New York club scene's brief fascination with swing dancing (probably fueled by the success of Harry Connick, Jr.). Remember "Jump, Jive, and Wail?" This was very good luck for Bennett, and he made a good PR move by booking a performance on that TV show that used to be big with the grunge crowd, MTV Unplugged, during which he sang duets with a bunch of then-popular artists like K.D. Lang and Elvis Costello.

When his career again started to slow down, guess what Bennett did. If you guessed, "He released an album of duets with then-popular singers," you're absolutely correct. He released the aptly named Duets album. Five years later, he followed-up with another aptly named album: Duets II.

Lady Gaga appeared on Duets II. We can consider Cheek to Cheek to be, essentially Duets III. No word yet on Duets IV, but don't count him out yet.

At this point, I hope you are sensing a pattern. The most obvious pattern here is that Bennett has a tendency to latch onto popular contemporary artists and use their popularity to boost his own ticket sales. This is not the mark of a musical innovator. This is also not the mark of a jazz singer. It's the mark of someone whose music career is based on adorning the trappings of great musicianship.

Now, I'm not going to say that Bennett is a terrible singer. He has a nice voice. But "having a nice voice" is not really the same thing as "being a jazz singer." Bennett doesn't write his material, he sings essentially a list of cover songs called "the great American songbook." These songs, however much you might enjoy them, are not representative of jazz as a genre. They're basically old pop songs, like "Camptown Races."

Or "Born This Way."

The Grifters

Lady Gaga could have recorded an album with Rosie Gaines or Lalah Hathaway, but she didn't. There is no shortage of famous jazz singers out there, many of them absolutely brilliant. But if Lady Gaga recorded an album with Lalah Hathaway, it would have lacked something important: the widely held opinion, based mostly on a marketing deception, that Tony Bennett is a jazz singer.

In other words, even though there are a lot of great jazz singers out there who genuinely could have helped Lady Gaga establish her artistic credibility (and from whom she could have actually learned something), none of those singers are "famous for being jazz singers." I mean, they're famous among jazz fans, but the public doesn't really know who they are.

The public does know who Tony Bennett is, and the public has been told - mostly by Tony Bennett - that he is a jazz singer. So that's what they believe. And if Lady Gaga does an album with someone who we're told is a jazz singer, then that gives her the reputation boost she's looking for.

What exposes the existential crisis here is that Lady Gaga's attempt at establishing artistic credibility isn't a genuine attempt to gain some, but simply an attempt to capture the trappings of artistic credibility. It's more important to Lady Gaga that you think Tony Bennett is a jazz singer than the veracity of that claim. The Last Psychiatrist might suggest that this is a narcissistic move. But he's not blogging anymore, so I can't know for sure.

The press for this album was full of quotes like this one, from NPR: "Frere-Jones also points out that Lady Gaga is more than pop spectacle; she can really play piano and sing." Think about that. One of the most important elements propping up Lady Gaga's claim to musical integrity is the fact that she, a professional musician, can "really" play an instrument and sing.

And in case there were any doubt, she recorded an album with Tony "I'm-a-jazz-singer-honest!" Bennett to prove it.

Behold, The Existential Crisis

None of this would matter in a world in which people understood that this was just a couple of saccharine pop artists putting on big-kid clothes and pretending to be real artists. That's not new - remember when The Moody Blues released Days of Future Past and tried to shock the world into believing that they were more than just a pop group? 

No, of course you don't remember. The Moody Blues aren't part of Rolling Stone Magazine's official anthology of rock and roll. The record companies, Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, and the part of your soul that secretly needs you to believe that "it's all subjective" are all counting on the fact that you don't remember any of the many past instances of pop stars trying to pretend to be artistically credible. The moment you realize that you fell for the same cheap trick - again - is the moment the existential vacuum opens and gobbles you up.

Wait, think about it for a second. If it all really were subjective, then why the hell would Lady Gaga need to convince you of her artistic credibility? If it were all a matter of personal taste, then what's with all of those Duets albums that Bennett keeps pumping out? Why is Rob Thomas' biggest hit the same as Carlos Santana's biggest hit?

The secret part of your music fandom really wants musical integrity to matter, it needs that in order to function properly. You need your music to be more than a matter of personal taste because, to you, it really.

And all I'm saying is that there's nothing wrong with the fact that you want your music to have real integrity; but that you need a theory of aesthetics if you want that musical integrity to be real.

But, piece-by-piece, your sense of aesthetics has been picked apart by calculated marketing propaganda... Tony Bennett is a jazz singer... The Beatles were not a boy band... The Moody Blues were such good writers that they could score symphonies.. The Strokes are "amazing"... Elvis Presley invented rock and roll... no one had ever played guitar like Jimi Hendrix until Jimi Hendrix... and so on, and so forth, until now you're forced to actually believe all this crap because the integrity of your own personal music collection depends on it.

...And yet, if I subject your music to my (personal, private, individualized) theory of aesthetics - thereby threatening its integrity - the only response you can muster is, "It's all subjective!!!"

Which, by the way, is the one thing the record industry needed you to believe in order to convince you buy whatever the hell they wanted to sell you today.


Musical Existential Crisis - Part One

Ask anyone the following question, and you're sure to get an obvious answer: Who is the more brilliant musician: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or Tove Lo? I'd say Mozart, wouldn't you?

There is a follow-up question, however, that is much more difficult to answer: Why is Mozart a better musician than Tove Lo? To answer that question, you'll need a fully functional system of aesthetics. If you don't have one, you're part of the problem.

Oops, I just implied another follow-up question: What is "the problem?" The answer to that is...

The World's Aesthetic Existential Crisis

An existential crisis occurs when a person ends up questioning the very foundation of his or her being. When one has an existential crisis, one is forced to analyze the purpose of one's life, the significance of one's actions and thoughts, the ultimate value of things that once appeared priceless. 

Suppose, for example, a person were an avid distance runner, running north of 100 miles per week, going on weekly runs of 30 miles or more, in the mountains, making running a spiritual experience for himself. He sure did dedicate a lot of his time - and much of his personal identity - to being a runner. Suppose one day that person became a type 1 diabetic and could no longer run like he used to, through no fault of his own, and thus a major part of his identity basically disappeared overnight. (Clearly a hypothetical example, right?) He might have to think long and hard about what else in his life has the kind of value that provides him with a sense of self and a sense of purpose. That would require some analysis. That would be an existential crisis.

The general pattern of an existential crisis is that one has an identity, or else one is so preoccupied by life that one never has to examine what one's identity and existence are all about; then, one day, something cataclysmic happens, forcing one out of an old identity, or out of the comfort zone of the preoccupation, and forcing one into a process of establishing that identity. Failure to establish a new identity results in either nihilism - the ultimate conclusion of which is self-destruction - or a psychic vacuum in which nothing really means anything anymore. The latter state is kind of like nihilism, except that instead of a viable conclusion, it leaves one with the paralysis of helplessness.

So, my contention is that society is currently having one of these existential crises with regard to music, and we are failing to establish an identity for what we think music is. We're failing, and some of us are turning to a kind of "musical nihilism," while the others have become musically helpless.

The solution to a personal existential crisis is the establishment of a robust working philosophy and a strong personal ethic. The solution to an artistic existential crisis is the establishment of a working theory of that branch of philosophy that deals with art: Aesthetics.

A Note On Subjectivity

I believe the root cause of this musical existential crisis is all you people who keep saying "music is all subjective." Really? So then Tove Lo is every bit as brilliant as Mozart.

And here is the point where most people are forced to shrug and say, "Yeah, I guess so. Because it's subjective, so I guess the only thing separating Tove Lo from Mozart is personal taste. To some, Tove Lo might be as good as Mozart."

Poof! Nihilism.

Now, look, there are many differences between Tove Lo and Mozart. For one thing, Mozart didn't need help writing his material. For another thing, Mozart was a child prodigy. For another thing, writing a symphony for a full orchestra is a lot harder than writing a pop song. For another thing, Mozart's music involves some of the most mature and accomplished use of compositional ideas the world has ever seen. And so on, and so forth. If ultimately what we're saying here is that the only real difference in musical value between the two of them is personal taste, is pure subjectivity, then we are effectively making the case that nothing about writing music matters at all.

You could, for example, place a dollop of mayonnaise on top of a vinyl disc and put it on a turn table, just to see what happens. You could call whatever comes out of the speaker "music," and if someone decided it was all they ever wanted to hear, well, that's pretty much Mozart for that one mayonnaise guy.

Meanwhile, she who slaves over every note, chord, cadence and beat for years, in a grand symphony the likes of which has never before been written is basically no better than a dollop of mayonnaise on a vinyl disc. Because, hey, I don't really like classical music.

Here you have a couple of options: 

(1) You can admit that, okay, some music is a lot more artistic than other kinds, and those things that make music "artistic" are part of some underlying idea you, personally, have about the value of music. You can begrudgingly admit that you possess a theory of aesthetics that works for you, and that theory of aesthetics forces you to conclude that Mozart is a lot more brilliant than Tove Lo, even though you'd rather listen to the latter than the former. You can realize that this sense of aesthetics, however implicit and however subjective it may be to you, somehow leads you to conclusions that are fairly widely held and uncontroversial, such as "Edward Van Halen is a master guitar player" and "Yo Yo Ma is fun to listen to, even if classical music isn't really my thing" and "Tove Lo might have a hit song, but that doesn't mean I'll remember it four years from now, and it doesn't mean she's as good as Mozart."


(2) You can double down. You can say, no, music is entirely subjective. It really is true that the only reason we don't call a dollop of mayonnaise music is because no one has actually published that song yet. You can say, Sorry, Ryan, but I would seriously rather hear a dollop of mayonnaise than Mozart because I really hate classical music and I'd rather be doing anything else than listening to it. 

Why People Double Down

I think a lot about this. 

I think, for some people, clinging to the notion of "absolute subjectivity" enables them to think of themselves as being more open-minded. The problem with that is that it forces them to be close-minded about everything related to an artistic endeavor. If, for example, these folks hear a Shostakovich symphony, its beauty will almost certainly be lost on them (because no one in the "it's all subjective" camp actually knows anything about music composition, but that's a tale for another blog post); if you try to explain some of the technical details of the composition, they'll say, "Just because it's complex doesn't mean it's good." And that, my friends, is the secret motive revealed: They're scared. They're frightened of having to analyze the technical details of a composition that doesn't immediately move them, and they're frightened that their favorite song won't pass muster on that level. Even if it's not fear - if instead it's something else, like patience or time or effort - their minds must remain closed to the prospect of a technical analysis, otherwise their belief that "it's all subjective" crumbles.

You can say, "But people who like technical music are just as close-minded!" Maybe so, but they're not the ones insisting that all music is subjective.

I think a few people out there have a genuine interest in the musical possibilities of a dollop of mayonnaise. They want to hear what it sounds like - what everything sounds like - in order to push the limits of musical expression. Some of these folks fall into the "it's all subjective" camp. But they're wrong for a different reason: A dollop of mayonnaise might be musically interesting, but only in reference to traditional music. This was the same for, say, Arnold Schoenberg, who created music that was radically different from anything that had ever been made before it. He wanted to test the limits, yes, but sitting in the background of the listener's mind during a Schoenberg composition is all the artistic biases that come with hundreds if not thousands of years of Western musical innovation. That's precisely what makes Schoenberg's music innovative, that implicit reference to what we're "used to." 

Tove Lo doesn't have that kind of a reference. Tove Lo is just writing synth pop. It might even be good by synth pop standards, but again... STANDARDS. Once you start applying standards, you're forced to admit that you're working with a system of aesthetics.