My latest piece at Sweet Talk Conversation postulates that mental health might be a good way to establish right and wrong:
Is there any better standard upon which to found our systems of ethics, something that performs a little better than the ones I've described thus far?
I think I might have one: mental health. Actions that serve to augment or support the mental health of moral agents are moral, actions that serve to diminish their mental health are immoral, and actions that have no impact on mental health are morally neutral. Applying this evaluative criterion to moral decision-making seems to yield consistently good results.
I remember reading an interview with Joe Satriani in the wake of the release of his newest offering, Shockwave Supernova, in which Satriani said something to the effect of, "I knew Shockwave Supernova had to be my most melodic album yet." At the time, I discounted that statement because, well, Joe Satriani always says something like that about his albums.
The remarkable thing about this album, to me at least, is that for once the statement actually is true. Shockwave Supernova is possibly the most purely melodic work of his entire career.
For reasons that might not be entirely obvious to the casual listener, my mind draws parallels between Shockwave Supernova and his 1995 self-titled full-length LP. To me, the comparison is fitting because I believe both albums were designed to be somewhat "stripped down," by Satriani standards. Both are good albums, but Shockwave Supernova is incredibly good. If I were forced to synopsize this album in a single statement, it would be: On Shockwave Supernova, Joe Satriani finally achieves what he wanted to achieve on '95's Joe Satriani.
Allow me to explain.
For fully a decade, Joe had been releasing albums and writing music that evoked "spacey" imagery. His debut album, for example, was entitled Not of This Earth, and his breakout album was Surfing with the Alien. It's not controversial to suggest that the science fiction imagery and ambiance is important to the Satriani oeuvre. For his purposes, the "spaciness" or "sci-fi imagery" comes down to reverb, echo, and thick, electronic modulation. Whenever musicians lean heavily on this sort of sound, the music becomes a little noisy. Let's face it, in a rock or metal context, this kind of noisiness is exactly what we want to hear.
Then, in 1995, Joe released his self-titled album and took a dramatic departure. That '95 album was decidedly toned-down from his previous work. The leads were restrained and evoked much more blues and jazz. He even hired legendary jazz drummer Manu Katche to pound the skins for him. There wasn't nearly as much echo or reverb. The whole album had a very organic feel to it, as if to say, "I know I'm the space-rock guitarist, but look - I can do a stripped-down record, too."
The result was good, but it wasn't great. I found myself missing out on some of Satriani's weird tendencies. The self-titled album didn't really have any weird time signatures or funny key changes. The scales were all quite straight. It was restrained, but it wasn't as creative, and that lack of creativity ultimately proved to be the album's Achilles Heel. Three years later, he was back to space-rock with 1998's Crystal Planet (reviewed here).
What followed was a lot of experimentation - a techno album, for instance. The 2000s-era Joe Satriani was innovative, and his technique was at the top of its game. He pushed the envelope despite the fact that he is still mostly remembered as a guy who made guitar solo music in the late-80s.
Now, on Shockwave Supernova, we hear an entirely new development. The songs are carefully constructed, restrained, melodic, deliberate... and, yes, stripped-down and organic. In that respect, it is very much an album in the same vein as 1995's Joe Satriani. There are other similarities: for example, he's once again working with jazz session players like Vinnie Colaiuta and Mike Keneally (both of whom appeared on his previous effort, Unstoppable Momentum).
But, where the self-titled album sounded like Satriani's attempt to be a completely different artist, Shockwave Supernova remains true to the signature Satriani sound. This is compelling since, according to interviews, the "story" behind this latest album is that Joe wanted to write an album based on a fictitious alter-ego. It's remarkable: In attempting to write an album as a different person, Joe Satriani has managed to produce what is perhaps his most "Joe-ish" album to date, all in a more stripped-down format.
That stripped-down format allows the songs to breath. For most players, this would mean giving them room to do what they do best. Possibly playing against type, Satriani practices admirable restraint in terms of speed and note choice. In moments where we'd expect him to unleash a flurry of notes, instead he gives us a tasteful melodic phrase, and the result is probably even better than the flurry would have been.
Then there's a song like "Crazy Joe," which works the opposite way. The song opens quietly, simply, and so we expect pure restraint. Then, suddenly, Joe unleashes an alternate-picking flurry! Even so, that "flurry" is carefully constructed and outlines both melody and harmony in a playful way that doesn't sound like "just a lot of fast notes."
I'll say something else, something that might turn a lot of people off: When I first heard this album, I was struck by the fact that any of these tracks (excepting maybe the title track) sound like they could get heavy rotation on C-jazz radio stations. There is a dedication to a cool, collected ambience on all of the tracks - exactly the kind of groovy calm we'd find on smooth jazz radio. Of course, Satch always rocks a little too hard for C-jazz, but close your eyes and turn on "All My Life," and tell me you don't hear what I'm talking about. And I certainly don't mean this as a strike against the album, because I actually like smooth jazz.
All said, this is easily the best Joe Satriani record since Strange Beautiful Music, and quite possibly the best of his career. In that regard, only time will tell, but while that time passes, we have quite a wonderful album on our hands, to keep our ears company.
With little to no changes in my overall fitness regimen, my blood sugar readings have stabilized considerably. My high readings have been reduced by as much as 30% - not small potatoes. I haven't had a low since last week, but I don't attribute the absence of lows to anything about my coffee-abstinence, so that probably doesn't count.
My replacement beverage - plain black tea, with half a packet of Splenda in it - does not appear to significantly raise my blood sugar, although to be fair I haven't attempted a "no-beverage" option. (All work and no play makes Ryan a dull boy.)
Typically, improvements in my blood sugar due to regimen changes last about two weeks for me, and then they reverse themselves. So I guess I won't be able to really make a judgment call here until February 5th, but so far, so good.
By coincidence, two different issues about free markets and roads came up this morning. I'd like to cover them both.
Snow Plowing Is A Deadweight Loss
This morning, while browsing social media, I encountered a "meme" that you have likely seen making the rounds:
The idea here is that, were it not for public snow removal, snow would not be removed at all.
There are, of course, a number of problems with this meme. First of all, it isn't true: I won't deign to link you to the dozens of news stories about people who voluntarily shovel or plow snow from public roads, but the stories do exist. Second of all, the scene in the picture above likely depicts a public road. What you're seeing is probably the result of socialized snow removal, not capitalism. Third of all, notice that the citizens in the picture are disincentivized from plowing more than their own personal driveways because they now believe that the public street is "the government's responsibility," even though leaving it to government is probably even less convenient for those who need to use the street. Fourth, many municipalities already use the libertarian solution: private snow plow contractors, who compete with each other to plow the roads. Even scary socialist Canada does this.
But so what? It's just a joke. I had to laugh at how so many libertarians "responded" in social media to what is obviously just a joke. Jokes aren't knock-down arguments for ideology, they're jokes. Maybe I'm the only libertarian who got a chuckle out of this.
The other thing I laughed about what the fact that no one I know on social media pointed out the real problem with public snow removal: It's wasteful. A good number of people who live on that street don't need to drive to work at all. They can telecommute.
Telecommuting is the real, emergent, anarcho-capitalist, libertarian solution to snow removal, because it represents the spontaneous order of a solution to the real problem with snow: getting somewhere. This solution is not the one that planners and leftists "expect" to see from being snowed in. They point to libertarianism as being impracticable because, to them, the problem is "snow on the streets." But the only problem capitalism sees is "I can't get to work." And capitalism has already solved that problem.
Naturally, this isn't true for everyone who lives on that street, but it's true for a significant, non-zero number of them. Thus, any amount of money those people have to spend - via taxes - on snow removal is a total deadweight loss for them. The city is "over-spending" on snow removal by removing some snow that need not be removed.
That's the "trick" to understanding free markets: First, you have to be able to see beyond the obvious - it's not a snow problem, it's a get to work problem. Second, you have to be able to see marginal costs - while plowing everything might benefit many, it is also wasteful for many others.
Bridges To Nowhere
While today was exceptionally bad for me in terms of a long morning commute, the scene below, which I tweeted, is a near-daily occurrence:
Stalled motorists, as far as the eye can see. The cause was neither a traffic incident nor any other unexpected event. It was the result of road construction on the highway, which has been going on in this same area for the past three years.
You can ask "but who will build the roads?" but the thing is, building a road isn't free. In fact, the cost of building a road isn't just the taxpayer money that gets transferred to the contractors who build the roads, plus the cost of government administration and oversight thereof.
It's also the additional cost of increased traffic incidents suffered by motorists - including deaths. It's the cost of additional law enforcement and traffic enforcement over the region. And, it's the cost of sitting in traffic, burning gasoline in an idle vehicle, for an extra thirty minutes every day, multiplied by tens of thousands of motorists.
It's impossible to provide an accurate accounting of these costs, but if you consider that the roads themselves cost millions to build and maintain, and the hit to local GDP is many more millions lost to the factors listed above, and I haven't even provided an exhaustive list of such expenditures, then the problem starts to present itself in clearer terms.
One possible market solution? Telecommuting. Another? Flying cars - which, by the way, largely haven't happened due to the regulatory burden involved in getting them to market and up into the skies.
I typically have lower blood sugar readings on the weekends than I do during the rest of the week. I always figured that the reason this happens is because I generally stay a bit more active on the weekends. I'll go for a walk in the mornings, spend a lot of time playing with my daughter, go out shopping, walk around, and I'll still get a workout in.
But that's just a theory. I haven't proven it. (I'm not sure I could prove it if I tried.)
Here's another theory: During the work week, I drink coffee in the morning and in the afternoon. I don't put cream or sugar in it, but I do drink a fairly large cup in the morning and another after lunch. There is a lot of caffeine in coffee, of course, and there is at least some evidence that caffeine impedes blood glucose control. By contrast, on weekends I will usually favor tea over coffee.
So today, and for the next few work days, I'm going to test out my alternate theory and see what happens. In the worst case scenario, nothing happens. But in the best case, I'll feel a little better.
Suppose you feel yourself coming down with a cold. Should you go running anyway?
As it turns out, this is a pretty complicated question. The reason is because running - and exercising in general - has both positive and negative effects on the immune system. It's probably not possible to predict how a single run will impact your body, but here's what we know:
First of all, regular exercise over the long run will tend to make your immune system stronger. The exact reason for this is not perfectly understood, but research suggests that exercising gets rid of senescent (old and ineffective) T-cells and stimulates the production of new T-cells:
The researchers first took blood samples from each of the volunteers to examine how many senescent and naïve T cells each had. Then, these study subjects were all enrolled into 12-week exercise programs at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Rehabilitation Institute. All programs were individualized for the study participants, incorporating elements of cardiovascular exercise, strength and endurance training, and exercises for flexibility, posture, and balance, with extra emphasis in areas where participants were weak.
After the 12-week program, the researchers drew a second blood sample from each volunteer and ran the same T cell analysis....
Results showed that the ratio of senescent to naïve T cells changed favorably in the majority of participants, with most of the study subjects regaining greater numbers of the naïve variety.
Having an increased number of naive T-cells means that your body will be more effective at fighting infection. That's the immune system boost we're likely experiencing when we get regular exercise.
On the other hand, exercise does two very bad things for your immune system: it causes inflammation and agonizes the production of cortisol. These effects are acute, of course, not permanent, which is why exercising is felicitous in the long run. We just can't forget that in the short run, a session of exercise makes our immune systems weaker.
There are other, more indirect factors, too. For example, regular exercise helps you sleep better, relieves stress, and increases insulin sensitivity. All of those things will tend to reduce levels of both cortisol and inflammation. But, once again, these are long-run effects not attributable to any one instance of running you might do.
In a perfect world, we'd be able to measure our various hormone, inflammation, and T-cell levels, and then conduct personal tests to determine how much, on average, going running adversely impacts the immune system in the immediate term, and to what extent that leaves us vulnerable to either new infections or the worsening of an existing one. That might sound like science fiction right now, but as recently as the 1970s, no one dreamed that we'd be able to accurately measure blood glucose levels and determine how they respond to all the same kinds of things.
At any rate, here we are in an imperfect world, and the best advice I can give you is to use your judgment.
If you have a cold, you probably shouldn't run. Just wait it out and his the pavement when you're feeling better.
If you have something minor and nagging, like the sniffles, then you ought to take a careful look at things. If this has only recently happened, then maybe your immune system is doing what it needs to do, and exercising would only make things worse. If it's been a few days, and you mostly feel fine, you might want to go for a run to make sure the exercise you're getting is still "regular."
The kind of running you do is also relevant here. It is almost certainly a bad idea to do a big session of HIIT when you're trying to fight an infection. This kind of exercise produces even more inflammation and causes even more stress than more restrained forms of exercise.
Also, consider other recent factors. Have you lost a lot of sleep lately? Has your diet been particularly bad of late? Have you been under a lot of pressure at work?
Unfortunately, there isn't one, simple rule of thumb that can be applied to your decision about whether to run when you're not feeling 100% well. But familiarity with your body, combined with a little bit of knowledge and an analytical approach, should help you avoid bad colds for the most part, and keep you running regularly.
In true Stationary Waves fashion, my latest piece at Sweet Talk Conversation touches on a little bit of everything: music, logic, philosophy, illusions, and trying to figure out how to become a better person by thinking-the-crap-out-of everything.
Well, it's way too convoluted to excerpt, so read the whole thing.
By my fourth year of college, I had finally managed let go of all our society's misogynistic, heteronormative ideas about sex. But I'm left wondering--why did it take me so long?
Elsewhere in the same article, Ripley alludes to her having pursued heterosexual relationships. She does not, by contrast, make any allusion to her pursuing same-sex relationships. So it's probably safe to assume that she spent over twenty years of her life believing heteronormative ideas about sex because, as a participant in heterosexual relationships, those ideas are genuinely normal for her.
The real question is why a heterosexual would ever reject heteronormative ideas about sex. It's certainly a fair question to ask, but a truly attentive reader will be more specific: What happened before Ripley's fourth year of college that made her reject "misogynistic, heteronormative ideas about sex?"
A Jarring Perspective
The passage I quoted above was the fourth paragraph in Ripley's article. Here are the preceding three:
I recently finished reading Inga Muscio's Cunt. I'll start by saying that no matter who you are, you can learn something from this book. The first and most interesting thing I learned was this:
The word "vagina" comes from the Latin word for "sheath," as in, for a sword.
This was one of those, "how did I never learn that in four years of liberal arts education?" moments that I've been having since I graduated in May. Of course. Women's genitals are defined in terms of men's genitals. And that's a problem. A woman cannot take ownership of her sexuality when the word for her sexual pleasure center implies it is her job, first and foremost, to please men. This is one of the many reasons Muscio rejects the word "vagina" and replaces it with "cunt."
Ripley wonders why, during the course of her college education, she never learned the etymology of the word "vagina," something she could have learned by looking it up in the dictionary.
Ripley now believes that the only clinically useful word for the female genitalia we have is an act of real misogyny. What could cause a person to take such a hateful view of oneself and one's sexual identity?
A Few Turtles Further Down
Why would one be inclined to first, reject every norm that genuinely applies to oneself, and second, to only ever use the most hateful term in the English language for one's own private parts? Think about it: What the hell would make a person feel that way?
I remember being surprised when one of my girlfriends told me in high school that the first time she had sex didn't hurt at all. I was jealous of her. Because for me, it was still hurting.
When we're left to figure out sex on our own, we accept whatever information we have available as true. Everything I read on the Internet told the same old story we've been telling for thousands of years: For girls, the first time you have sex is going to be painful; you need to just get it over with, like ripping a Band-Aid off; and once your vagina gets stretched out, it will be fine.
I kept waiting for it to be fine. And it never was. Not until I understood that basically all of the information I'd absorbed was a lie.
Pause for a moment and reflect. I don't dispute what Ripley says about physiology, but that isn't really the issue here. We are reading about the thoughts of a sexually active high-schooler who, despite consistently feeling pain during intercourse, continued to be sexually active. Does that sound like a mentally healthy person to you?
Ripley next claims that "society" (who?) is "obsessed with this concept of 'virginity.'" (Scare quotes in the original.) For the record, I'm not aware of anyone who even thinks about virginity, other than virgins. The reason virgins seem to be obsessed with "this concept," I wager, is because transitioning from a sexless child to a sexually active adult is one of life's most profound stages of maturation. But Ripley says we're "arbitrarily holding vaginal intercourse up on a pedestal."
She claims to "loathe" (her word) virginity. If she merely loathed it, that might be the end of the story. But take a look at the bizarre story she claims that "society" believes (emphasis mine):
The "virginity" myth and the myth that a woman's first time having penetrative sex must be painful go hand in hand.... Pain during that intercourse is just a physical manifestation of the punishment you're about to endure(i.e. - burning in hell).
What?!? Who thinks this?
Next Ripley makes an empirical claim: That there are "tons" of pornographic videos that depict "'deflowerings.'" (The quotation marks are hers - who is she quoting?) I don't know whether or not this is true, but even if it is, I'm not sure it buttresses the claim that society has a violent infatuation with virginity, or that sex should hurt. After all, there are "tons" of scat-porn videos out there, and I'm pretty sure society in the main is not obsessed with that.
She hastens to add that she's not arguing against pornography, that pornography can be "safe." Safe? Why safe? Why does she use that word as a defense for pornography? Why doesn't she use a word like "healthy" or "normal" or "fun" or "appropriate?" Why safe?
Anyhow, at this point we finally come to Ripley's thesis statement: "we need better sex ed." Okay, fine, but now step back and observe the steps in her chain of reasoning:
The etymology of the word "vagina" is sheath, therefore women's sexuality is defined by men's, therefore we should only use hateful, ugly words to refer to genitalia in order to sever this relationship.
Therefore, society is dominated by misogynistic, heteronormative views on sexuality.
Ripley's high school sexual activity was painful, because she was taught that physical pain is her punishment for sexual activity.
This all relates to the fact that her boyfriend watched a lot of pornography, and consequently she learned everything she "knew" about sex from pornography.
Ergo, we need better sex education.
This sounds less like an argument and more like a session she had with her therapist. In fact, it sounds like the sad ramblings of an unbearably wounded person.
In February of last year, Ripley was the editor of her college paper when she wrote in an article that she had been the victim of a sexual assault. If there's anything that will completely upend a person's views of healthy human sexuality, that's it. In her article, she spares us the details of her horrible encounter, but she is clear about the psychological impact it had on her:
The worst trauma I experienced was not when one of my ex-boyfriend’s fraternity brothers tried to rape me at a date function. The worst trauma I experienced was seven months later, when I had a trigger while having sex with my ex-boyfriend, and he left.
For those of you who may not know what a trigger is, it’s something that makes you remember your traumatic event, in a way that you feel like it’s happening to you all over again. You are disconnected from the here and now. You feel scared, your heart races, sometimes you feel like you can’t move or breathe.
For those of you who don't know, Ripley is describing the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
You might say to me: why don’t you just wait until you’re in a steady relationship? And that’s valid. When sex is difficult because of traumas or fears, it’s probably best to do it with someone you know you can really trust. But I didn’t go that route because I wanted to return to a sense of normalcy. Taking a guy home from the party because I wanted to was part of my normal. After my trauma I continued to do it in order to convince myself that I was healed — that my past didn’t have to inhibit me.
Got that? The reason she didn't want to wait until she was in a healthy, steady relationship was because she wanted to feel normal. But what is more normal than a healthy, steady relationship? "Normal" for Ripley means separating emotional and physical intimacy at will, and choosing one or the other - not both. Normal also means not being bound by her past experiences, but rather being able to live as though she has never had them. It means living as though the same sexual history that lead her to physically painful intercourse in high school and sexual assault in college "didn't have to inhibit" her. That's her version of normal.
Once again, Ripley is ready to prescribe solutions. This time, it's communication:
Well, I have always believed you should do what you want to do, free of judgment or pressure from anyone else. Sometimes it’s hard to tease out your authentic desires from cultural standards, but to the extent you are capable of knowing yourself, listen to that instinct. And most importantly, in taking the liberty of doing what you want to do, take care that you don’t harm anyone — and that includes yourself. For survivors of trauma, this means waiting until you’re ready. And for those who haven’t survived trauma, it means being more aware of the fragility of your partners’ sexual selves. None of the men I took home with me had any power or responsibility to fix me. But they did have a responsibility to communicate — to check in every step of the way — because that’s what you owe anybody you share that level of intimacy with, no matter what their history is.
That sounds healthy enough... untilyou get insight into what effective communication looks like, in Katherine Ripley's opinion:
He had his hands on my hips as he led me upstairs, a trek I had taken already half a dozen times. He locked the door to his room behind him as he closed the door. He kissed me — a kiss that was starting to feel familiar. And in the moment right before I expected him to reach for the top button on my shirt, he stopped abruptly and said,
“Doll, we’re clear right? It’s just casual sex.”
It was the verbal summary of all the non-verbal communication that had taken place in the month since we’d met — the cheap drinks at night, the hasty exits in the mornings, the fact that he never texted earlier than 10 p.m. One thing was for sure: nobody was fooling anyone. And I kept coming back.
I mean... I put it to you, my readers: Does that seem like a healthy encounter to you?
Hypersexuality is a common side effect of sexual trauma (as is avoiding sex altogether). I didn't know this at the time I wrote that piece. During that period of my life, I wasn't just, "taking a guy home from the party because I wanted to." I was actively going on Tinder and looking for guys to meet at bars and then bring home with me, because I felt like I needed to.
Ripley says she didn't want to stop being promiscuous until one of her casual encounters "went horribly wrong" and resulted in a major panic attack.
Just as she did with pornography, Ripley hastens to add that she isn't condemning "promiscuity" or suggesting that every promiscuous person has mental problems. Then she moves on to her conclusion. But if "hypersexuality is a common side effect of sexual trauma," then shouldn't Ripley be asking herself whether there is any benefit to embracing promiscuity as a sexual norm? Shouldn't she be asking herself whether she was right to defend "hook-up culture?"
No, she doesn't do that, but she does quote her therapist as having said something genuinely wonderful: "Society has all kinds of value systems for determining when sex is okay and when it's not okay. But the only one that really matters is the unity of mind, heart and body."
Maybe Society Is Not So Misogynistic, After All
It's crucial - absolutely vital - to understand that Katherine Ripley writes feminist articles about sex for the Huffington Post. That puts her in the position of being more than some blogger recording her psychological development in a digital diary. She's in a position of influence, and she represents those voices arguing against "all our society's misogynistic, heteronormative ideas about sex," and in favor of hook-up culture, pornography, and casual encounters.
Rewind, back to when Ripley was discussing her sexual assault. I'll quote it again, because it's important:
When sex is difficult because of traumas or fears, it’s probably best to do it with someone you know you can really trust. But I didn’t go that route because I wanted to return to a sense of normalcy.
Compare that to Ripley's perspective after a lengthy and intensive dose of psychological counseling:
I never went back to sleeping with random people. When I felt like I was ready to start dating again, I wrote in my new Tinder profile: "Do not message me if you are only looking for hook-ups."
I want to implore my readers to fuse all these ideas together into something that makes logical sense. For all the people out there writing in favor of being sexually libertine, of normalizing casual sex, of normalizing sex work (indeed, that there is "dignity in whoredom"), there are people out there who are genuinely attempting to live by that advice.
Katherine Ripley was one of them. She embraced pornography as sexually normal. She participated in "hook-up culture." She experienced promiscuity as "normal for her." She actively communicated about her expectations, or lack thereof. And the result of all of this was intensive psychotherapy and, ultimately, an embrace of committed physical and emotional intimacy with committed partners...
In other words, Katherine Ripley embraced society's norms and ideas about sex. Perhaps, one day, she'll be ready to ask herself whether those norms and ideas provide important guidance to us about what truly is safe and mentally healthy behavior.
Note: Although my copy of this album is the 2005 Deluxe Edition, with bonus live tracks, demos, and DVD, I will only be reviewing the "main album," i.e. the remastered tracks recorded in 1983. I just don't want to get into a deep comparison of the original album versus the Deluxe Edition. I'd like to focus on the songs and the music, rather than production value comparisons, etc.
The release of Fates Warning's third studio album, Awaken the Guardian, represents the moment they truly came into their own as a band. A fair criticism of their early work is that it was too derivative of other metal bands of the time, most obviously Iron Maiden. Fates Warning, though, was from the beginning a more progressive metal act. On Awaken the Guardian, they finally embraced their most progressive tendencies, allowing themselves to craft long songs with complex time and thematic changes, and make music fearlessly.
As is the case with all of Fates Warning's work, a casual and uncritical listener will tend to miss the details, where much of the band's genius is found. If all you're prepared to hear from the band is thrash metal, then that is pretty much all you will hear from Awaken the Guardian. If you're like me, on the other hand, and you're a composition junkie, this album is so rich and fertile that you'll be discovering new elements to the songs for literal decades.
I could write my whole review of the album from the perspective of the long-time Fates Warning fan that I am, expounding on the fact that Awaken the Guardian is probably the most beloved album in the band's body of work. I could praise its classic songs, "Prelude to Ruin" and "Guardian," and heap praise on original singer John Arch's powerful and unique voice and lyrics. But that's been done so many times already, and besides, what stands out to me about this album is not its position as a classic of the genre or as a testament to the "band that might have been, if only John Arch had stayed..."
No, what stands out to me about this album today, 33 years later, is how ground-breaking its compositional elements remain.
Take the album's remarkable opener, "The Sorceress," for example. Although it is not remembered as a Fates Warning classic, its innovations are numerous and breathtaking. Most specifically, "The Sorceress" introduces us to Jim Matheos' highly unique approach harmony, with which he courts dissonance in unconventional ways, yet remains comfortably within a consonant framework. (If that sounds weird, it's because it's the best way I can describe what is a great artist's particular compositional "stamp.") At various points throughout this track - and elsewhere on the album - the instruments take a break from classic metal power chords and riffing to play harmonies, but not as melodic lines so much as three-person chord outlines. The effect is at once heavy and spacious, and no other metal act was doing it at the time. Then, as the listener adjusts to the new-found Fates Warning guitar "sound," beloved original singer John Arch hits us with innovations of his own: layered, contrapuntal vocal tracks that display both the virtuosity of his voice and his own flair for composition.
Awaken the Guardian also introduced Fates Warning fans to something else that has remained a staple of the band's work ever since: The introduction of, and heavy reliance on, clean-toned and acoustic guitars. Sure, plenty of bands have played clean, and then played dirty; plenty of bands have mixed acoustic passages into songs; but Fates Warning is the first band I am aware of that has played a heavy song all the way through with one guitar playing clean and the other playing dirty. This, too, goes back to Matheos' complicated harmonic ideas, many of which cannot be expressed clearly with distorted electric guitars. By keeping his own guitar clean, he was able to introduce a level of harmonic complexity that other metal bands of the time just couldn't touch.
And it's not jazz, as so many other progressive bands find themselves when they get complex. Matheos' origins were always in classical guitar, so his harmonic approach reflects that direction. For Fates Warning, "progressive" doesn't mean a mish-mash of musical styles exploding in all direction. Rather, Fates Warning adds layers of classical harmonies to an ostensibly metal framework to create "vertical" rather than "horizontal" complexity, if you will.
Anyway, the point is, Awaken the Guardian established this new writing approach as the backbone of the band's work, and set the stage for everything that was to come over the next three decades.
The band's transition from "old-school metal band" to "progressive metal pioneers" would not come without casualties. In this case, the band bid farewell to original guitarist Victor Arduini, and welcomed a player who was better-suited to the band's new direction. The incredible Frank Aresti proved to be up to the task. Aresti came to the band with a whole new arsenal of licks and approaches. His style simply fit the band's newer direction better, and his playing on Awaken the Guardian is testament to that; from the intricate acoustic interplay between he and Matheos to his lighting-fast and innovative lead work, Aresti's performances on the album demonstrate that he was up to the task and then some.
So: As the band's first real artistic declaration of who and what they were, Awaken the Guardian proved to be the gateway drug for old-school metal fans to Fates Warning. For fans who came to the band later on, as I did, the album serves as a fascinating window into the sounds and structures at the heart of the music.
In my bid to win Feel-Good Facebook Post of the Year, I wrote:
I was born in the United States of America during the last half of the 20th Century. My parents were middle-class people who loved me and who taught me important life-lessons growing up. They made me do chores and they taught me to read and do arithmetic before kindergarten. They gave me encouragement as I pursued sports, arts, and academics, and most importantly they had enough financial means to ensure that I never had to go without while I was growing up, and well into my university years. Furthermore, I lived in a community that had an extremely low crime rate, in which I could walk a mile to school or ride my bike to the park and hang out alone for a few hours, all without having to worry about falling victim to something terrible. I have never experienced any natural disasters as long as I've lived. Every medical event I have ever experienced is treatable by modern medicine. I have never been in a war zone.
By global standards, I have experienced the upside of odds quite a bit less-favorable than those of the Powerball Lottery. If you're reading this, then chances are, so have you.
I just want to put that out there.
Gee, whiz! Touching, right? Unfortunately, I was wrong about the odds. David R. Henderson of EconLog pointed out that it is actually less likely to win the Powerball jackpot than it is to be one of the 220-some-million middle class Americans currently alive, compared to the estimated total number of human beings who have ever lived in any age at any socio-economic class.
I still think I'm a lucky guy, but I'm astounded by the remoteness of the possibility of winning a major lottery like Powerball. Next time you think about buying a ticket, remember that winning is actually less likely than your ever having been born in the first place.
When news first hit that Chris Cornell was joining with the instrumentalists from Rage Against the Machine to form a new band, unlike most other people I knew, I was incredibly disappointed.
Chris Cornell has been one of my favorite musicians since I first discovered his music. While others gravitated to the sound of his voice - a remarkable voice the likes of which has never existed in rock music before or since - what always stuck with me about Cornell was his compositional sense. His melodies are complex, his sense of rhythm is complex, his lyrics are haunting. His approach to writing songs involves some very unique approaches that I have studied closely and tried to absorb to the greatest extent possible.
Meanwhile, the guys from Rage Against the Machine have always been vocal critics of musical complexity, exalting in their dedication to total simplicity. Early interviews with Tom Morello revealed him to be a judgmental, pretentious man who looked down his nose at anyone who wanted to play complex music. It wasn't enough that he had his own thing going on, he scornfully referred to more complicated music as "masturbatory."
So for me, it was like pairing Bach with Ja Rule. But, I admit that I was curious. So on my day off, I made a trip to the local CD store, where at the time they had CD players loaded with new releases that customers could listen to before buying. I found the Audioslave station and gave the CD a chance.
Immediately, I was struck by the simplistic riffs, the amount of compression applied to Cornell's vocals, and the general absence of everything that I loved about Soundgarden. The truth is, I didn't really give the album a fair chance. I let my disappointment cloud my judgment, pressed "stop" and moped out of the store.
That remained my opinion of Audioslave, the band and the album, until a few years later when a friend bought me tickets to see Audioslave live in concert as a birthday present. I decided that I had better catch up on what the band had been doing since I walked out of that CD store all those years ago. By then, the band was touring in support of their second album, and had a couple of major hits on rock radio.
The concert ended up being great, really great. I was impressed. It was finally time to give Audioslave the album a second, fairer chance.
Then, as now, I heard an album that is good, overall. Certainly not as strong as Soundgarden's material, nor as strong as Cornell's solo work, but it occupies a unique sonic space in Cornell's oeuvre.
The simplicity of the instrumentation is certainly palpable. There is a lot of sonic space in all of the songs. Morello, for his part, had already used up all of his fast licks by 2001, so the guitar work is certainly nothing to shake a stick at. The bass work is relatively flat - it lacks the kind of spark that a more knowledgeable bassist could give music like this. The drums are well engineered and sound nice, but they may as well be a drum machine.
Meanwhile, the vocals, for the first time in Cornell's career, show real signs of struggle. The album's initial track (and initial single), "Cochise," is supposed to be a hard-hitting, bellowing metal song. But the riff is lifted directly from Led Zeppelin, and the vocals are a far, far cry from "Slaves and Bulldozers." The album's other major single, "Like A Stone," is a much quieter effort, one that would ideally give Cornell a chance to display the sometimes stunning softer side of his voice. Instead, his vocals sound nasally, bored, disaffected.
All that is to say that Audioslave is decidedly not an album of great performances.
What redeems the album is the quality of the songwriting. As poorly executed as the studio version of "Like A Stone" might be, the melody is absolutely infectious. The bridge is tender, with a refreshingly elegant chord progression. The song works - the live performances were testament to that fact. Its sister song, "I Am the Highway," is even better. In fact, I've never met a person who has heard that song and hasn't ended up with it stuck in their head.
Other songs on the album, like "Set It Off," give us hints of the Audioslave that would eventually develop over their tenure. There, we finally get our mix of Cornell's screaminess and Rage Against the Machine's R&B-tinged hard rock. This is the band that would, years later, pen songs like "The Original Fire," songs that represent a truly unique take on good old fashioned hard rock.
Occasionally, I dig this album out of my collection and give it a spin. Its best moments make me smile, but at the end of the day I have to admit that for the most part I forget most of the songs as soon as they're over. I'm glad that Audioslave became a better band as they continued to play together, because if they had released only their self-titled debut, they would have been as forgettable by grunge god standards as The Talk Show.
Prince has a lot of albums, and thus a lot of album openers. For my money, though, none of them are quite as astounding as the title track on his 1985 album Around the World in a Day. Musically, the song alludes to the Middle East, to South Asia, and, inexplicably, Prince's unique brand of 80s dance-rock. His voice is gritty, powerful, as soulful as ever. The combination of synth sounds, world music sounds, acoustic guitars, and drum machines creates a powerful musical onslaught. And, probably most importantly, it is a thoroughly creative song the likes of which has never been replicated by Prince or anyone else.
It's hard to write a totally unique song. But this was Prince coming into his own as an artist, and such things were coming relatively easy to him at the time. Or so it seems to us fans.
As I see it, the Around the World in a Day album is noteworthy for two main reasons. The first is the amount of space that Prince left in the songs on this album. Where 1984's Purple Rain was a complex onslaught of tracks and overdubs working together, this album feels much more spacious. The end result of that decision highlights the other aspect of this album that I love: the arrangements. God, what an amazing job Prince and his band did arranging all the instruments on this record. His previous work was certainly well-orchestrated, but the decision to leave more open space in the music required him to make each note matter a lot more. Lucky for us, he rose to the challenge.
Never is this more apparent than on the album's smash hit, "Raspberry Beret." Fundamentally, the song isn't particularly genius. It's catchy, it's nice, but stripped down to its fundamentals it's not a really special song. What really makes it wonderful is the bobbing, weaving, melody played by the synths and guitars throughout the song. They outline the chord progression without playing it outright. The song has a lot of lyrics, a lot of melody, and so the choice to sing over the top of a completely different melody played by the instrumentalists is different - and especially so, considering the amount of space in that song and throughout the album. The only way to make it work is with a razor-precise arrangement. Prince delivers the goods. That's why they call him a genius.
All these years later, it's also somewhat important to point out the difference between the album's reputation and what it actually sounds like when you listen back to it now. Wikipedia, for example, states that the album genres are "neo-psychedelia," "pop rock," and "psychedelic pop." The songs, however, are concise, and not particularly indulgent, especially coming from an artist who has, at various times released 12-minute songs, set human orgasms to music, worn seatless pants on stage, etc. Even the stranger moments are moments, not of psychedelia, but of experimentation with sampling and tape-editing. The roots of that experimentation represents the evolution of R&B music, not psychedelia at all.
But "psychedelia," when used by music commentators, is a more pretentious word for "trippy." Hence, anything that seems different or experimental can be labeled "psychedelic," as can thoroughly banal music that happens to be associated with drug use. It's widely acknowledged that drug use was not a major part of the Prince oeuvre or creative process, much to the chagrin of the Rolling Stone world. He even attests to this fact in "Pop Life," when he sings "Whatcha puttin' in your nose? Is that where all your money goes?" But since Around the World in a Day is such a different Prince record, they had to give it some kind of label that would stick, and some music fans won't allow modern music to be anything other than sex and drugs.
Instead, I'd classify the album as simply mature. The sensible arrangements and instrumental restraint provide hints of the Prince that was to be just a few years later, while the eclectic sounds and willingness to experiment remind us that this is an artist who is never content to rest on his laurels. Let's face it, Prince had every reason to make his 1985 album a Purple Rain II. If he had, he would have made many more millions. Luckily for us, Prince has artistic integrity and a will to push himself beyond our expectations, and his expectations, sometimes resulting in something that goes platinum thirteen times... and other times resulting in something more refined, for the people like me.
In a recent post over at Sweet Talk Conversation, I argue that at least some knowledge is manifest, and that we can leverage that fact to help de-politicize knowledge, maybe making the world a slightly better place in the process. Here's a quick slice:
Then why would I be so pedantic as to differentiate between political and apolitical knowledge when, as must be clear enough by now, Gurri’s posts have been specifically about the trust we place on the knowledge we gain from others?
One reason is that doing so provides us with a potential remedy for the problems he has identified. Knowing that an honest truth-seeker can, in highly politicized moments, step back, out of the realm of political knowledge, and into the more reliable world of direct observation provides us with an important check on the undue influence of politics and motivated reasoning.
If you're interested in this kind of stuff, read the whole thing.
Last week, I wrote about leaning into declines, and picking up the pace during inclines, to maintain or improve running speed. Today I'd like to tackle another aspect of running: endurance.
Faithful Stationary Waves reader CS recently asked me, "How do you run so far?" Like many people, CS doesn't have a problem running, say, three miles. But when it comes to something more like an eight-mile run, he's not confident that he could actually do it. I, on the other hand, consider an eight-mile run not much more difficult than a three-mile run. Other than the time commitment - and for diabetics, some minor blood sugar management considerations - eight miles don't challenge me more than three miles do.
Now, some of this relates to what's known as "running economy," or the efficiency with which a runner's form propels him forward. Improving running economy requires meticulous effort in some cases, and a great deal of experience in all cases. (For a more in-depth look at running form, see here and here.)
Still, assuming there are no obvious "form issues," it's possible to get over the "mental hump" that keeps people like CS from running longer distances, but it sometimes requires a little mental trick.
If you can run from A to B, you can run from B to C
It Works Like This
Start with a distance you know you can run. Suppose you're like CS, and you know you can run three miles. In that case you'll want to choose a location that is exactly three miles from your starting point, and run there. When you get there, turn around and run back.
I can sense your skepticism, so let me explain why this works so well. If you run three miles in any direction, then you'll have to travel the three miles from that endpoint back to your starting point somehow. Chances are, you'll be tired of running (having never run that far before) and will want to get back home as soon as possible, so that you can do... pretty much anything other than running. You won't have any form of transportation readily available to you, other than your feet, so that means the quickest way out of your predicament is to... run back home. Congratulations: You just ran six miles.
Is this kind of a dumb, cheap trick? Yes. Does it still somehow work? Yes. Yes, it does.
One of the reasons I think it works is because retracing your steps always seems somehow shorter than setting out initially. You're already familiar with the scenery, the puddles you saw along the way, the corner coffee shop with the blue thing on its street sign, the overpass where you nearly fell on your face, etc. So, when you see all this scenery in reverse, for some reason it feels like, "Oh, I was just here. I can't believe I only have two miles left..."
Another reason it works is because even if it fails, it improves your endurance. That is, if you "only" make it to the halfway point and then turn around and walk the whole way back, then you just increased your workout from a "three-mile run" to a "three-mile run, followed by a three-mile walk." That still improves your endurance.
Probiotics As A Treatment For Both Kinds Of Diabetes
A rather remarkable article in the Daily Mail reports that diabetic rats who were given a particular kind of probiotic experienced something amazing:
Professor March's team engineered a strain of lactobacillus, a human probiotic commonly found in the gut, to secrete a peptide - a hormone that releases insulin in response to food entering the body.
The scientists then gave a group of diabetic rats the probiotic in pill form for a period of 90 days.
They monitored the rats' blood glucose levels, comparing their findings with a control group of rats, not exposed to the probiotic pill.The team found those rats given the new drug had blood glucose levels which were up to 30 per cent lower than those rats not given the modified probiotic treatment.
But another finding proved just as exciting.
The scientists found the cells in the upper intestine of the diabetic rats given the treatment were converted into cells that acted similarly to pancreatic cells - which in healthy people secrete insulin to maintain and balance glucose levels.
Professor March, from the university's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said: 'The amount of time to reduce glucose levels following a meal is the same as in a normal rat, and it is matched to the amount of glucose in the blood.
'It is moving the centre of glucose control from the pancreas to the upper intestine.'
Before you run out and buy up all the yogurt in town, though, keep the following in mind:
It is especially important to note that the probiotic used in the study is different to the probiotic dairy products that are already widely available.
So what we have are preliminary results that show a chemically engineered version of a human probiotic compound could actually mimic the effect of beta cells. At least, that is what has happened on preliminary tests in rants. This looks like a good therapy to keep an eye on because there is virtually no downside to ingesting probiotics, so even a small effect could easily meet a patient's risk threshold.
What this latest version of the "artificial pancreas" consists of is an insulin pump, a continuous glucose monitor, and a smart phone app, all integrated together. Scientists have developed a robust predictive algorithm that reads more than just your blood sugar data to make better predictions about an individual's blood glucose levels, then provides improved warnings and guidelines via the app to help the patient better manage their condition.
Do I think this will help? Yes. Do I think this is an important development for the treatment of diabetes? Yes.
Do I think it is worthy of being called an artificial pancreas? No, sorry. Not even close.
I've met a lot of runners who have been running 9- and 10-minute miles for years. They simply don't understand how I can pretty much stop running for nine months straight and then go out and run a 5K totally cold, but still at a 7:00-per-mile pace or faster. You could argue that part of this is "talent" or "genes," but I firmly believe the real explanation is experience.
Experience teaches you to make small adjustments to your running form, speed, cadence, or posture depending on the landscape or situation in which you find yourself. If you never vary the length of your stride, for example, then you'll slow way down when you have to run uphill. The reason for that is pure physics, not athletic ability. So, through the years, people like myself have figured out that taking shorter strides uphill - and longer strides downhill - makes an enormous difference to your running speed without costing you very much energy.
There are many such examples which, when taken together over the course of a run, turn me into a seven-minutes-a-mile guy even on my bad days, while others struggle. If they knew all these techniques, they'd probably be seven-minutes-a-mile runners, too.
So today, I'll share one such strategy, learned from experience, that I had to use during my run this morning.
I went for a run along a running path today. About halfway through the run, the path went under an overpass so that runners and pedestrians wouldn't have to cross a busy local street. But the running path was dug out underneath the road - the road itself did not change in elevation at all. So, it was a dip. I wasn't running under an overpass, I was running on an underpass.
Ordinarily, as you run over a landscape like this, your speed will naturally increase during the downhill section since it requires less energy to run downhill. Then, when you hit the uphill slope, you'll likely slow down a bit. The problem here is that when you reach the top of the hill, you almost always settle into a pace that was much slower than you were running before you came across the dip in the first place. So you slow down more than you otherwise would have.
Dig my MS Paint skills
A lot of runners - especially novices - lose a lot of energy, speed, and momentum when they hit little dips like this. They think the downhill slowed them down a bit, and then they returned to their old pace. Usually, they're still quite a bit behind their original pace.
This problem has a simple remedy.
First, Lean Into The Downhill
You probably already know this, but if you don't, here it is, briefly:
As you run downhill, lean forward. Don't just "lean forward," I mean really lean into it. You want to push your center of gravity far in front of your feet, so that your legs have to struggle to keep yourself from falling over. You should almost feel like you're losing control.
This reduces the amount of energy required to propel your body forward, because gravity is doing most of the work. You're not really expending any additional energy - in fact, you're probably expending less - but your body is moving a lot faster. The result is a quick burst of speed that continues even for a few steps after the decline flattens out.
Like I said, though, you probably already knew this.
Push The Uphill Hard
But the trick that will really help you here is one that sounds kind of counter-intuitive. What you have to do is push yourself pretty hard on the uphill.
Most people want to conserve their energy, so they don't mind taking things a little easier uphill. That's fine, as far as it goes, but like I said above, you'll often find that you don't return to your original pace, even after you've climbed the hill.
Instead, what you need to do when you hit the uphill is lean forward again and pick up the pace to something substantially faster than your original pace. Keep that pace all the way up the hill, then just as you reach the top, give yourself one additional burst of speed over the crest.
In doing so, you will have pushed your body harder than you wanted to, and naturally you will have climbed the hill faster than you otherwise would have. But most importantly, as you return to a more standard pace, you'll settle into something much closer to the pace at which you were originally running. In fact, you might even settle into a faster pace.
Keep in mind, this one tip is not going to revolutionize your running times. Great runners are made from many such tips all working together. But anything you can do to maintain a good pace and improve running economy will help.
I've been running a lot more lately, so I aim to share more of these tips as I remember them. It's been a long time since I've run competitively, and even longer since I've actively coached anyone. But I've spent a lot of time developing running-related knowledge and experience, and it would be a waste to just sit on that. Hopefully, some of my readers will be able to benefit from this.
Partly due to the fact that rock music is aging, and partly due to the fact that I myself am aging, over the years it has become progressively more difficult to find new music worth getting excited about. Sometimes I feel like I've more or less "heard it all." So it is a real treat to discover a new band that actually excites me. Even better if that band is really a new band, not just aging classic rockers lining up in a new configuration.
Twelve Foot Ninja is without question the best new band I've heard in a long, long time. Having recently heard the new single from their second, forthcoming album on the radio, I hastened to purchase the band's 2012 debut, Silent Machine. Somehow I had missed it when it was initially released. Problem corrected.
Silent Machine presents us with a series of songs that fuse together some of the best elements of recent musical trends in a way that doesn't feel like a mash-up. Right out of the gate, the album's debut track "Coming for You" hits hard with some screaming and some heavy riffing. Then, in a moment, it's gone and replaced with - wait for it - a latin jazz feel. The verses slowly build up to a pop sound, a pop rock sound, and finally metal again for the chorus. And yet, the entire track is just a few seconds longer than three minutes.
Keyboards, tempo changes, 8-string guitars... it would be tempting to call Twelve Foot Ninja a progressive metal band. But that wouldn't be quite right. First of all, the songs are two concise and radio-ready for the progressive genre.
And second, vocalist Nik Etik's smooth and engaging voice is the voice of a genuine pop singer, and that is not progressive metal fare. He has a low voice, a rich, buttery baritone that doesn't pretend to be a tenor, like most rock baritones do. He's comfortable in his lower register, evoking shades of Faith No More's Mike Patton and I Mother Earth's Bryan Byrne at his very best. But then the meticulous vocal harmonies rise behind his voice, and we hear passages that - at least in terms of vocal performance - could rival any pop album on the charts.
Etik's remarkable voice is so refreshing for a hard rock album in a world where rock vocalists either find themselves whooping and hollering in an attempt to be Chris Cornell or just giving up on melody altogether and making that odd "screaming noise" so popular among hard rock and metal bands these days. Indeed, his voice is part of the "glue" that emulsifies the broad and sudden musical changes happening throughout all of the band's songs.
The other ingredient to that "glue" is the always-everywhere-amazing drumming of Shane Russell, who somehow manages to find all the common rhythmic threads between the quiet pop sections, the heavy "djent" sections, the jazzy bits, and especially the transitions in between. It is so rare to find a percussionist capable of following along with diverse rhythms and musical feels in a cohesive way. Plenty of drummers can switch styles from song to song, but only a select few can do it within the same song. Russell proves that he's a true rarity in the music world.
Meanwhile, guitars, keyboards, and bass engage in an absolute onslaught of musical diversity. They hit us with soft pads and acoustic guitars, moments before finding the perfect 8-string heavy riff. They hit us with haunting, 60s-style echoing clean tones that rise into weaving contrapuntal lines. They always manage to find the right combination of sounds to support the lyrics, the sound of Etik's voice, leaving space for the vocal harmonies. The arrangements are perfect, simply perfect.
Of course, in today's world of digital musical manipulation and studio tricks, it's easy to wonder if a band like this is just another in a long line of "studio bands" destined for brief YouTube or Kickstarter fame. Or, are they real musicians? Can they deliver the goods?
Twelve Foot Ninja answers this question handedly with the bonus tracks on Silent Machine's "Bonus Edition," featuring the two acoustic tracks "Manufacture of Consent" and "Apocalypstik." Here, the band has nowhere to hide. Aurally naked, with nothing but acoustic instruments to convey the Twelve Foot Ninja sound, the band proves that everything they do on the main album tracks can be done in their (proverbial) living room with acoustic instruments.
But that's the thing - in today's world, it takes no small amount of daring to put your band out there like that, raw and vulnerable to careful critique. Daring is precisely how I would describe Silent Machine in its entirety. Presenting us with a band that is unafraid to explore complexity, rawness, modern melodies, djent heaviness, and more, Silent Machine is beyond a doubt the best and most exciting album from a new band I have heard in years.
Rest assured, I will be following this band closely, and so should you.
Over the weekend, the song "Common People" by Pulp came on the radio. It tells the story of a working class man who meets a rich debutante love interest who "wants to live like common people." Through the course of the song, the man takes her around town and tries to explain to her what it's like to have nothing, doomed to "drink and dance and screw because there's nothing else to do."
When analyzed in isolation, this song is really strange. It is essentially a rant against a woman who doesn't exist. The songwriter made up a character based loosely on someone he met briefly at a bar, and then subsequently invents a set of beliefs or thoughts possessed by that character. He finds those made-up, fictional beliefs deplorable, and so he writes a song about how disgusting they are. But remember: he made the whole thing up. So who is he ranting against?
Details on the song's subject matter as described at Wikipedia reveal that the song's inspiration was a woman who the principle songwriter met at a bar and attempted to sleep with, suggesting that the song is actually a revenge fantasy twice-over: Once because he disparages a woman who would not sleep with him, and twice by striking at the upper-crust people who look down their noses at commoners. But again, the song isn't actually about real people with real beliefs, it's about imaginary people with imaginary beliefs, and the anger the songwriter feels toward those imaginary things.
And what fan could actually enjoy lyrics of this kind? Only someone who hates such imaginary people equally. But, importantly, they don't exist. So what exactly is going on here?
It's too weird to ignore, so I had to think about it more carefully, and what I realized seemed remarkable. What if I told you the whole thing was a kink?
Uptown Girls And Downtown Men
In cruder language, "Common People" is about a man who meets a spoiled rich girl who wants to experience life as a regular person, so he screws her and then chews her out for never really being able to understand the plight of the poor. If you accept the premise of the story long enough to absorb its social commentary, you're still left with one loose end: Why did he have sex with her? It doesn't seem to be relevant to the social commentary at all, so it must mean something else.
In my mind, there are two possibilities.
The first one is quite unpleasant: he had sex with her as a form of symbolic rape. The working class young man can't change his station in life, and he can't show her what it's really like to be poor and miserable; but he can screw her, and in the context of the story, that event is critical to the plot. ("I want to sleep with common people like you.") This one act is the "hero's" lone means of achieving control, and so he does it. I reiterate, this is a made-up story; this sort of thing absolutely does not happen in real life. So, on one level it could be analyzed as a rape fantasy. Yechh.
I think it very well might be a rape fantasy. However, I don't think that's the only way to interpret the song, so let's consider a more charitable alternative.
As I was trying to wrap my head around this rather strange song, I started thinking of other popular songs that depict a poor male commoner having sex with a rich young debutante. The first two that came to mind were Van Halen's "Beautiful Girls" and Steely Dan's "I Got the News."
The cynicism in "I Got the News" isn't apparent until the bridge, but lyricist Donald Fagen gives us a quick glimpse in the first verse when he sings, "Daddy is a rare millionaire, I don't care. Yeah, you got the muscle, I got the news." In the bridge, he simply insults her intelligence. This song might, too, be a sort of cross-class rape fantasy; Fagen might never be a rare millionaire himself, but he can still canoodle with the daughters of industry. Still, the rest of the lyrics are unabashedly fun-loving. Fagen isn't hostile to his interlocutor, he's thrilled. The point of the song is to describe joy, not rage. Maybe his insults are just teasing in good fun. Some of the lyrics are even cutely tender.
"Beautiful Girls" is much different. David Lee Roth doesn't express any disdain for his love interest. She's rich and he "ain't no man of the world," but that's alright with him. He's just happy to be at the beach with a drink in his hand, on the prowl for beautiful girls. I'm struck by how much more pleasant and happy Roth's perspective is, compared to the others. Note also that his spoken-word during the outro implies that she turned down his advances. ("Whoa, whoa! Hey, where you goin'...?")
Billy Joel offers us a more traditionally romantic take on the idea with his 1983 classic "Uptown Girl." Joel puts the woman in control of the story. Sure, "she's been living in her white bread world," but she has "hot blood" and "now she's looking for a downtown man." Joel is more than happy to provide her with what she's looking for. As for anything long-term, Joel's not hedging his bets, but "maybe sometime when my ship comes in" he'll win her heart. In any case, poor boy meets rich girl, canoodling ensues.
All that is to say that we have many examples here, many different takes on the same basic plot premise. Working class boy meets spoiled rich girl, attempts to have sex with her with varying levels of success. It's always the boy who's out of his league, even when the boy wants nothing to do with rich folks. This isn't a Jane Austen novel; the women aren't clamoring to "marry up" in order to save themselves from poverty and obscurity. Consequently, the stories aren't depressing like an Austen novel, either. They're sexy. The way the encounters play out provides an interesting look into the psychology of the specific lyricist in question, but the common strand is there, and the glue holding it all together is sex.
I'm going to call it the Uptown Girls Principle. The question is, why do people keep writing songs about this?
It's Not Just Music
Maybe it's not just pop songs. Maybe human beings have some kind of a "dumb heiress" kink. If so, we'd certainly see it more places than just a few pop songs from the second half of the 20th Century. Do we?
To answer this question, let's turn to literature. The publication of D.H. Lawrence's infamous Lady Chatterley's Lover takes us back to 1928. While the novel explores various themes including class conflict, mind/body, and the nature of love, it is more notorious for being scandalously sexual. Were it merely a book about class, there wouldn't be any point to including all that gratuitous sex. But that sex is integral to what Lady Chatterley's Lover is as a work of literature, and thus we find a rather poignant example of the Uptown Girl Principle.
Two years prior to the publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover, a German author named Arthur Schnitzler published a remarkable novella entitled Tramnovelle. Today, Tramnovelle isn't particularly well known, but film buffs know it as being the story upon which the Stanley Kubrick's film Eyes Wide Shut is based. (Note: I have a HUGE film analysis of Eyes Wide Shut in a draft on my blog - it is long over-due and I'm anxious to publish it, but for now...) The protagonists in Tramnovelle aren't exactly poor, but they're not as rich as the people who frequent the orgies described in the book, either. It is an incredibly cerebral story, and one whose main (and quite feminist) themes are as relevant today as they were when the book was written. But what interests us here is the fact that this highly sexualized Uptown Girl theme serves merely as a backdrop to the story's main events. Schnitzel doesn't call attention to class differences in the story, he simply takes them for granted. They don't feature prominently, they go without saying. And yet the only point at which they are relevant during the story is with respect to the orgy, i.e. the sex. So, there it is again.
Working backwards to 1844 brings us to Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, in which young commoner D'Artagnan falls in love with noblewoman Constance Bonacieux. The Three Musketeers is ostensibly a story about a young man who goes from zero to hero on the strength of his character, his will, his wits, and the tutelage of his equally heroic friends. In that sense, Madame Bonacieux serves as a sort of testament to D'Artagnan's progress as a hero, but she needn't have been an adulteress to have served her literary purpose. That she was is merely a salacious little tidbit that makes the story more engaging, more exciting, and - yes - sexier.
I won't further belabor the point. The Uptown Girl Principle, this kink, seems to have been with us in art and literature for centuries.
Nor Is It Just A Guy Thing
Where did that dumb airhead act come from, the one some girls use to attract guys?
I realize that hundreds of articles have been written about this, and they all say more or less the same thing. It's always some version of the following:
They do it to fit in. People don't like to feel dumb, so they don't hang around people who make them feel dumb. Consequently, a woman who plays dumb will be less offensive to more people, including the subgroup of people called "love interests." The more love interests you consider, the more likely you are to find a good one. Thus, girls play dumb to ensure they don't scare off a good man.
That's fine, as far as it goes, but it doesn't really answer the question. Another way to be attractive to the largest number of people is to be incredibly kind. Another way to do it is to be incredibly generous. Another way to do it is to be incredibly funny. There are many ways to be attractive to men. Why is playing dumb specifically such a common thing that girls do for male attention?
You could say, "Because guys don't really like funny (or kind, or generous, or etc.) girls." That almost sounds valid, except that it's a punt. Fine, they don't - then why do they like dumb girls? And why is having a love interest a good enough reason to play dumb?
In other words, if we accept any set of rationale for playing dumb, we're still left wondering, "Why dumb and not something else?"
The answer seems obvious to me: Because the Uptown Girl Principle, is common to men and women; and it's always Uptown Girls, not Uptown Guys. Sure, women like rich men, but they don't write songs about being poor and then "saved" by a rich guy... Unless they're Jane Austen, in which case the story changes from erotica into a tragedy. Very different.
Women will play the rich ditz when it works for them, and when it seems to work best for them is specifically in sexual situations. Think about the classic "pool boy" thing. Yeah, it's cheesy, but all of these things are cheesy; that they're cheesy doesn't mean that people don't still enjoy them. And women read Lady Chatterley's Lover, too. Women willingly participate in the Uptown Girl Principle.
Girls! Girls! Girls!
And, like any kink, the Uptown Girl Principle is well-represented in the adult content industry.
The initial set (the only culturally relevant set) of "celebrity sex tapes" were the ones featuring Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian playing the role of ditzy young heiress on tape with what were essentially B-list male celebrities in much, much lower income brackets. I don't begrudge a girl her choice in men, but these tapes weren't recorded to pay tribute to a match made in heaven. They were designed to titillate the parties involved. When they went public, they turned the women into massive celebrities and household names. It might be difficult for younger readers to understand that no one cared about the Hiltons or the Kardashians until those tapes were leaked to the public. As such things go, they weren't really any of any higher quality than something more, uh, professional, but they sold far better than any such "professional film." Why?
Sure, we all had a good laugh at their expense. You could say that these women brought society's wrath upon themselves by putting themselves in situations where they could be the brunt of our negative attention. But that's not really the point here. They put themselves in those situations voluntarily, because it was fun. And society didn't laugh for long - these women have made millions by creating brands out of their own notoriety, millions above and beyond whatever revenue they earned from the tapes themselves (if any).
This latter point highlights an additional and highly important dynamic involved in these tapes. Hilton and Kardashian seemed like airheads when society first got to know them, via their leaked tapes. Ultimately, though, they proved themselves to be highly business- and media-savvy - i.e. intelligent - women who were more than worthy of being the heiresses that they are. So the airhead thing really was a role, not their true identities.
It was an act. They were only pretending to be Uptown Girls, for personal pleasure. And society at large was just as into it as they were.
Including International Society
"India's first porn star" was a cartoon character called Savita Bhabhi. Bhabhi is a Hindi word that roughly translates to "elder sister-in-law," but it's rife with additional connotations, including that of attractiveness. You can think of it as being similar to the "bored housewife" thing here in North America. But "bored housewives" tend to be a little older than Savita Bhabhi. Indians traditionally marry young, so this would be, perhaps, a woman in her mid-to-late-twenties.
This character is famous for instigating a national dialogue in India regarding internet censorship by the state - thus being a cause celebre of libertarians. But I'm not grinding my free speech axe (today). Savita Bhabhi is an affluent woman who vacations in Goa and who studies at a good school. There are plenty of different men in her life, but generally they are young scoundrels, youth, commoners.
In short, Savita Bhabhi, like so many North American stories of this kind, is an Uptown Girl.
So this Uptown Girl phenomenon is everywhere. The kink is universal. It stretches across borders and over generations. It seems to be part of the social fabric of human sexuality. I can't really explain it, and I guess I shouldn't even try. I decided to write this blog post mainly because I seem to have stumbled upon a cultural phenomenon - really, a human phenomenon - that I haven't really seen discussed elsewhere.
In fact, I tried to do some research on it in preparation for this blog post, and I couldn't find anything. Granted, I didn't really wander into the darker corners of the internet, but in a world in which even the most innocuous Google searches yield pornographic results, it seems odd that such a common and pervasive aspect of human sexuality would be comparatively difficult to track down.
I won't flatter myself to think that I'm the only person who has formally taken notice of this, but if my blog post serves as a starting point for someone else's research, I hope it proves to be helpful.