The Hold Steady – Stay Positive (Some Thoughts)

Since getting the new The Hold Steady album on Tuesday, I think I must have listened to the albums all the way through almost 6 or 7 times, so I’ve had some time to digest this album. What follows are some of my collected thoughts.

Musically, you can tell instantly that this is a Hold Steady album, because all the requisite elements are there: the E-Street piano, the massive guitar hooks, sing-along choruses, the shimmering keyboards, and Craig Finn’s unmistakable voice. But this is not to say that there are no musical changes, because there are. For example, check the horns on “Sequestered in Memphis,” the harpischord (?!) on “One for the Cutters,” the Slash-esque guitar solo on “Lord, I’m Discouraged” (which I’ve written plenty about already), the banjo and the theremin (what?) on “Both Crosses,” and finally, the vocoder on “Joke about Jamaica” (granted, it’s not exactly Frampton Comes Alive).

While none of these things are musically innovative, The Hold Steady executes them very well: you just want to raise your drink and sing along and just not give a fuck how you sound, because you know the rest of the bar is just as drunk as you are and they don’t give a fuck too. Plus, the sense of joy is undeniable in these songs, not necessarily reflected in their lyrical contents, but from the way the band plays. It is very obvious that the band had fun recording the album. So even when the songs get dark and heavy–and believe me, they do–the atmosphere is never dragged down into the abyss: think of it as a sing-along to oblivion.

Which brings me to the lyrics: The Hold Steady is mining familiar territories on the album, namely, teenage wasteland in the middle of nowhere, filled with lost souls who abuse substance as a way to fill their empty lives until they die or overdose, whichever comes first. But whereas their last album, Boys and Girls in America, celebrated these characters with exuberance, this album is not so high on their prospects. In fact, Craig Finn describes something like despair when he sings about people whose fathers worked on the mills, and who will themselves work on the mills until they die. So these people indulge in substance abuse and meaningless sex to fill this emptiness.

But while most of the songs on the album are connected by this theme, there emerges a loosely-connected narrative told through multiple perspectives in non-chronological order. The narrative itself is not made clear (deliberately too, I think), involving a party that went too hard, resulting in multiple murders, two of which possibly by cruxifixion. It is in this loosely-connected narrative that The Hold Steady digs the deepest into the dark abyss of these people’s lives, a side of the band which was only hinted at, until now. I must applaud Craig Finn for willing to go to these really dark places, which only adds to the psychological complexity of the band’s music.

Interestingly, Craig Finn explores these dark places by way of Catholicism: the album is littered with Catholic images, whether it be the title of songs (“Both Crosses,” “Lord, I’m Discouraged”), or some seemingly throaway lines (“Yeah Sapphire/if I cross myself when I come/would you maybe receive me?”). The way Catholicism informs the album is not explicitly theological: after all, Craig Finn is not trying to do dogmatics. Rather, Catholicism is an undercurrent that courses through these songs, usually reflected in a peripheral fashion, as the characters ponders skepticism, miracles, and faith in a stream-of-conscious manner.

Furthermore, there is another sense in which the album could be broadly construed as religious: namely, its concern with and hope for redemption, not of a religious kind, but through music and love. This dual concern with both despair and redemption is reflected in the very first song “Constructive Summer”: as Craig Finns describes teenagers with nothing to look forward to in their lives, he also “raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer” (notice the religious title) and exhort, seemingly to himself, that “we could all be something bigger.”

The idea of redemption through music is most fully realized in the titular track of the album, “Stay Positive,” in which Craig Finn describes how good it feels to re-connect with old friends, and how “the Youth of Today and the early 7 Seconds/taught me some of life’s most valuble lessons.” And he’s hopeful that the next generation will find their music through which to find some meaning, no matter how shitty their lives will be, “because the kids at the shows they’ll have kids of their own/and the sing along songs will be our scriptures.” In this sense, music has replaced God, and redemption has been secularized.

The last song on the album, “Slapped Actress,” nicely embodies the spirit of the album as a whole. It is a meta-metaphor, since it takes its title from and explicitly refers to a John Cassavettes movie named Opening Night, which tells the story of an actress who must confronts her aging process and the loss of her beauty. This is a fairly oblique, convoluted way of restating the theme of the album: mortality and the loss of innocence. But then again, the album itself is oblique, with its central narrative told from fragmented perspectives and chronlogies, circling back on itself.

Yet in the end, the characters in the song finds some comfort, if not entirely happiness. The last five lines of the song say: “We’re the directors/Our hands will hold steady/I’ll be John Cassavettes./Let me know when you’re ready./Man, we make our own movies.” In those five lines, Finn acknowledges that yes, life can be shitty most of the time, that youth eventually ends, that innocence is lost; BUT, something like redemption can be found if you are with someone who can create your own life.

If life is truly a stage, and we but poor actors who strut upon the stage for an hour and are no more, then Craig Finn seems to say that that is okay, so long as we reconcile ourselves to our mortality, our lost youth, our inevitably dashed dreams. As an album-closer, this is about as good as it gets. I seriously hope the band ends its live set with this one.

So suffice to say, I really like this album. And it pretty much exemplifies why I still have faith in rock music. If The Hold Steady can craft a musically enjoyable, lyrically sophisticated album, then surely there is still something worth listening to.


Rock n’ Roll Ain’t No Threat to National Sovereignty

Apparently, the Chinese government has decided that to those about to rock, we will ban you.

From Reuters: China targets foreign entertainers after Bjork debacle:

“China will ban all entertainers from overseas, Hong Kong and Taiwan who have ever attended activities that “threaten national sovereignty”, the government said on Thursday, after an outburst by Icelandic singer Bjork…

During performances, entertainers who “threaten national unity”, “whip up ethnic hatred”, “violate religious policy or cultural norms” or “advocate obscenity or feudalism and superstition”, will also be banned, the rules state.”

I’m sure the translation from the Ministry of Culture (jesus, what year is this, 1984?) is missing something, but a song that advocates feudalism and superstition? Does that mean they won’t let people play “Battle of Evermore” and “Stairway to Heaven” from Led Zeppelin IV? This would definitely hurt all the 70s prog-rock fans in China.

But seriously? The Chinese government decided to do this because of Bjork? Because of fucking Bjork?!?! Look, I love Bjork, and I mean really really LOVE Bjork, but she’s crazy, and the Chinese government should know that. If there is ever an revolution in China in the future, Homogenic shall be its soundtrack.

But this just goes to show how insecure the CCP feels about its rule: that it is willing to do something as absurd as this to keep order and control. And it’s little things like that remind me why I became an American citizen: because in America, the FBI only sends letter to N.W.A. and Ice-T, not putting them in jail for it.

And to top it off, I love this snippet from the story:

“Even encores need to be approved in advance, the ministry added.

 “Nothing that has not been approved will be allowed to be performed,” it said.”

So definitely no Freebird for anyone. What a disappointment indeed.

Silly Rabbit, Political Cartoons are for Kids!

Y’all have seen the New Yorker cartoon cover this week, so there is no need to link it. But one does have to wonder: what is it about political cartoons published in Western newspapers, especially if it involves depiction of Islam (implied or otherwise)? Remember the Danish cartoon controversy?

Now, I don’t think this man’s opinion warrants the issuance of a fatwa, but let me just say this: the whole thing is blown out of proportion. But of course, you already knew that, because if involves the MSM, the story is, 9 out of 10 times, blown wildly out of proportion.

Let us examine the Cartoon-gate in detail.

1) Is it satire or smear? The fact that people even need to ask this question shows just how humorless we have become. Instead of offering a good, wry quip about it, the Obama camp and much of the left blogosphere have taken it upon themselves to play the Merchant of Grievances. Should Jonathan Swift have added a fucking big, giant bold disclaimer at the end of “A Modest Proposal” that states that what the reader has been reading is satire and not meant to be taken literally? A ridiculous proposition.

The fact is, anyone who has even an elementary grasp of the facts about Obama’s life should realize that the cover does not depict anything resembling fact, and therefore could only be satire. If you have to explain to someone that something is satirical, then whatever bite the satire might have had will be lost.

2) But is the cover at least a good satire? And here is my problem with the cover–not the fact that it depicted Obama as a bin Laden-worshipping, secret Muslim and Michelle Obama as an angry black feminazi–but because the cover is not satirical. It just isn’t funny.

A good satire requires a target, but in this case, it isn’t clear whom the New Yorker is targetting? Is it targetting certain elements of the conservative movement that seeks to exploit false rumors? Is it targetting those in the electorate who believe such depictions of Obama? Who the fuck knows? And that is the problem: satire is essentially critical, but the New Yorker cover doesn’t criticize anyone. If the New Yorker had the balls to actually target someone, then this would have been okay. If the cover had made it clear that the portrayal of Obama and his wife is the product of some right-wing smear campaign, then at least it is saying something. Or, perhaps even more daringly, if the New Yorker had the balls to suggest that it is a large part of the electorate that believe in such depictions of Obama, then I would have really applauded them.

But no, instead of holding up a mirror to those who might have such beliefs, the New Yorker pansied out and pointed no finger. Instead, it merely added to the echo chamber known as the Mainstream Media by drawing a cartoon that only amplified what has been floating out there already: namely, the rumor that Obama is a secret Muslim and that Michelle Obama hates white people. Instead of mocking such false rumors and smear campaigns, the New Yorker unwittingly muddied the situation even more.

3) Is it controversial merely because it is about Obama? Understandably, everything that involves the media portrayal of Obama is underlied by the fact that the MSM has never had to cover someone like Obama before. So there is an issue of precedence here, and maybe the New Yorker just made a mistake.

I don’t buy that argument, because to me, satire should be equally unsparing. In fact, had The New Yorker cover mocked Obama, I would have greatly applauded the effort.

In fact, how about this scenario: a cartoon depicting Obama standing beside a grave, and saying these words: “This sickness is not unto death,” and then someone would jump out of the grave, and that man will be labeled “The Democratic Party.”

Look, I know it’s not the most creative thing in the world, but at least it’s mocking something about Obama: namely, the Messianic tone of his campaign, sometimes perpetrated by his ardent supporters and sometimes by himself.

Will it piss off a lot of people? Of course it will! A satire will have completely failed if it does not piss off a lot of people! But at least it will be critical, which is much more than I can say for the current cover.

4) The greater, more troubling implication. But beyond whether the cover was good satire or not, there is a much deeper, much more troubling implication about public opinion that this controversy has revealed: that being considered a Muslim, even if only as a joke or as a rumor, is considered politically explosive, shows how much more America needs to go before it can fully accept one of the world’s largest religion as a legitimate one.

Instead of being shocked and grieved that Obama is being falsely depicted as Muslim, ask yourself this instead: why should being Muslim be a problem in the first place? What, if anything, is wrong with being a Muslim? Furthermore: what, if anything, is wrong with the President being Muslim? The answer, from a moral point of view, is of course nothing. In fact, this intuition is codified in the Constitution, in Article 6, which says “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

Now, you might argue that this isn’t a legal test, and I would agree. But I would go further and say that in fact, public opinion is perhaps even worse than a codified legal religious test as a pre-condition for office. In the end a de facto test of religion and a de jure test of religion amounts to the same thing: people will choose the highest office in the land based on something that is completely irrelevant, by itself anyways, for the position. But whereas you can always change the law, changing public opinion, as John Stuart Mill used to say, is much, much harder.

And what this presidential campaign has shown me is that there is in fact something like a de facto religious test in the mind of the American public: the fact that the Obama campaign has gone out of its way to refute this rumor shows how seriously they take this concern. After all, if no one really cared whether Obama was Muslim or not, the campaign itself would not use resources to combat it as zealously as it has been.

So instead of asking whether Obama is really a Muslim or not, ask yourself this: why should we give a fuck if he were Muslim?

Therefore, my last outrageous suggestion, before I end this post and go back to my actual work, the one which I get paid to do, is the following:

In the next cycle, we should elect a President who is a half-Muslim, half-Jewish, homosexual, female president who has an open civil union and adopted a baby, and a Vice President who is an atheist, Mexican, transgendered person.