It has become a disturbing trend lately for politicians to defer expressing an opinion by explaining that they aren’t an expert in whatever area is under discussion. (I’m old enough to remember when the most common use of this phrase was commercial actors saying, “I’m not a doctor – but I play one on TV!”) I’m not a scientist either, but I know enough to figure that when 97% of climate change studies attribute it directly to human activity, that’s a pretty good argument.
In fact, I’ve heard that phrase used so often lately that it has become an ‘earworm’ (a disturbingly evocative description of those songs or soundbites that get stuck in one’s head). So here’s my musical response to this over-used excuse . . .
Even those of you not old enough to remember the 1960s have heard of the various counter-culture movements – anti-war demonstrations, hippies at Woodstock, ‘never-trust-anyone-over-30,’ and so on. (I was in elementary school, so I wasn’t old enough for any of the really wild stuff. My counter-culture activities were confined to teaching myself the guitar chords for “Where Have All The Flowers gone?” and macrame-ing myself a belt for my bell-bottoms. But I digress . . . )
Music, politics and comedy were also combined frequently, from The Smothers Brothers to Country Joe McDonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” (the one he recorded at Woodstock, with the iconic refrain, “And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?” – don’t feel bad, I had to look up the title and I was even alive when he wrote it in 1965. On the other hand, according to Wikipedia, he wrote it in 20 minutes. How’s that for making us all feel like slouches?)
Anyway, here’s my version of a protest song for modern times, inspired by the always-reliable Daily Show’s apt summary of our latest anti-terrorist campaign:
Those of us old enough to remember rotary phones, black & white TV, and cars without seatbelts are now at an age when a forgotten name or misplaced car keys can make us worry about age-related memory loss. My response is always to joke about my hard drive being full – it’s not age, it’s data overload.
And that actually makes sense – by the time we’re in our 50s, we’ve had so many experiences, met so many people, learned so many facts, and memorized so many phone numbers that it’s amazing we can remember our own names. (And as far as the phone numbers – anyone under 30 has it far easier, because these days who needs to memorize a number when your smart phone does it for you?)
This sense of data overload is particularly profound during campaign season – which these days is pretty much all the time, given that we’re already talking about 2016 and we haven’t even had the 2014 election yet. It’s not just that every news outlet has its own poll, which all seem to contradict each other, but now pundits are making a science out of poll data aggregation, and none of them agree all of the time. Plus the results seem to change on a daily basis, depending on the latest lawsuits or stories of errant behavior.
Since this relatively new field of unending data aggregate analysis feels a bit like the untamed wild west, I thought it was appropriate to memorialize it with a wild-west-themed song (and one which only those of us old enough to remember rotary phones are likely to recognize):
There are fewer & fewer of us who actually remember the first scandal whose name ended in ‘gate,’ thus inspiring every other controversy to adopt a similar suffix, whether somewhat comparable (“BridgeGate,” about Chris Christie & the GW Bridge closure), unwieldy (the Mark Sanford “AppalachainTrailGate” sex scandal) or downright silly (criticism of the President’s summer wardrobe became “TanSuitGate”). But part of why the -gate naming continues to this day is that the original Watergate scandal was a huge historic moment.
I was in jr. high when the hearings started (and thank you to those of you thinking, Gee, she doesn’t look THAT old! . . . . but I digress), and even then my die-hard liberal father knew that they would be important. He allowed me to stay home from school to watch key testimony, and made sure I was aware of the whole story as it unfolded.
If you look up ‘scandals ending in -gate’ you will get a list of over 100 in various categories (anyone remember “toiletgate” or “squidgygate”?), but ironically, so far no one has tried to ‘gate-ize’ what may turn out to be an equally historic moment – recent revelations about domestic and child abuse by professional athletes. Every day it seems new details emerge, another athlete is found to have beaten a child or girlfriend, and like in Watergate, it may turn out that the coverup is the worst part.
Who knows how historic this story may turn out to be with a few decades’ perspective? But in the meantime, here’s my musical take on it . . .
For generations, we’ve illustrated ‘the American Dream’ as being a place “where anyone can grow up to be President.” But these days, one look at President Obama’s weary face& gray hair, not to mention the merciless way people can attack any public figure anonymously, is enough to scare off impressionable kids. (Can you imagine the field day internet trolls would have had with William Howard Taft breaking the White House bathtub because he was too heavy for it?)
Interestingly enough, however, poor approval ratings don’t seem to have dampened enthusiasm for Congressional candidates. (The lucrative revolving door between public & private jobs, as illustrated by Eric Cantor’s recent windfall, may help . . . )
When I was a kid, “Schoolhouse Rock” taught us about the 3 branches of government via catchy songs – so maybe it’s time for an update, about the joys of serving in Congress.
Labor Day has traditionally marked the start of the fall season, when we say goodbye to ‘those lazy hazy crazy days of summer,’ return to school (or work), and put away our white shoes until Memorial Day. Of course, most of those traditions have evaporated – style expert Tim Gunn says white is appropriate all year round, very few working adults get much time off in the summer, and many schools start mid-August or earlier. But we still usually think of summer as a more carefree time, when things are a little easier and workplaces are more casual. (I, for one, thoroughly appreciated the break from waking my son up for 4 years of zero period marching band – getting a sleep-deprived teenager out the door at 6:30 a.m., and living to tell the tale, has earned me at least some good karma!)
However, this past summer has been an endless stream of awful news, from war and conflict to corruption trials to racial unrest and protests, and there never seemed to be a lull. It made me nostalgic for last summer, when the big stories were outrage over ‘twerking’ (Miley Cyrus’ provocative dancing at an awards show), or the continuing revelations in the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal. Even the Kardashians were surprisingly low-key – I guess they’re waiting to reveal their next big shocker when the world isn’t so fixated on things that actually matter . . .
With that in mind, here’s a salute to the Summer of 2014 – and to how relieved we are that it’s over!
The phenomenon of political spouses standing by their scandal-plagued husbands has become such a cliche, it’s even inspired a t.v. show – “The Good Wife.” We’ve seen women forgive men for infidelity, patronizing prostitutes, embezzling funds, or cringe-worthy texts, among other misbehaviors. But recently we’ve seen a whole new twist – not only is Maureen McDonnell (wife of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell) standing by her man in his corruption trial, apparently, she is letting him blame the whole thing on her. According to McDonnell’s defense, they couldn’t have coordinated any quid pro quo because their marriage was so damaged they didn’t communicate, and besides she solicited gifts from the tobacco-supplement-magnate because she had a crush on him, not because they hoped to exchange expensive goodies for political favors.
I don’t know what the real story is, whether this is an elaborate hoax or a messy public airing of a sour relationship, but it sure is gothic enough to inspire a Tammy Wynette-style country ballad.
The past week has been a particularly sharp example of the connection between comedy and tragedy. Robin Williams’ suicide reminded us that there is often a dark side to funny people, and meanwhile the unrest in Ferguson, Iraq, and the Middle East have many of us exhausted by bad news and craving some comic relief.
Like many humorists, I often struggle with the seeming frivolity of what I do, wondering if my effort would be better spent trying to cure cancer or feed the homeless. But when I first moved to New York, I was fortunate enough to have a roommate who was getting her degree in oncological social work (counseling families of terminally ill patients). She brought a group of her colleagues to see me do a comic cabaret show, and they assured me that they couldn’t face the constant tragedy in their line of work without people like me helping them laugh and blow off steam.
Not that I’m equating my weekly songs with the genius of Robin Williams, but I do appreciate getting comments like, “Thanks for helping me laugh at a frustrating subject,” or “Keep the funny songs coming – it really helps!” (And those are a refreshing change from other comments like “Who told you you could sing, you clueless feminazi libtard?”)
I actually don’t even mind the negative comments, since they are amusingly deficient in grammar & spelling as well as logic. However, I have to admit, there is one frequent comment that irks me – “Hey, you should send your stuff to Jon Stewart!,” as if that had never occurred to me, and as if all I had to do was take the reader up on that fabulous suggestion and voila, I’d be appearing on The Daily Show. But since sending my weekly songs to the show’s email & Facebook page doesn’t seem to be working, I decided to try a more direct approach . . . .
As I approach the 2-year anniversary of my weekly song project, it’s fascinating to look back on how my writing process has developed, and to see what lessons I’ve learned. So here are a few tips to share with any readers who are either contemplating a creative venture (or who would enjoy a vicarious peek at something they’d rather not experience first-hand . . . .)
– Writing is frequently 1% inspiration and 99% putting-your-rear-in-a-chair. In other words, the best way to learn to write is to write. (My 8th-grade English class was fortunate enough to meet with Ray Bradbury once, and he shared his practice of forcing himself to write 10 pages every single day – sometimes those pages consisted of “I have nothing to say” over and over again, but with enough repetition, he would eventually come up with something usable.)
– Give yourself permission to write crap. It’s always easier to edit than to start from scratch, but it’s almost impossible to come up with anything if you are afraid it won’t be fabulous.
– Be open to inspiration from unexpected places. Sure, some weeks have a fabulous, everyone’s-talking-about-it story, which is how I came up with “Oh Won’t You Put Me In Your Binder Full Of Women.” (And the fact that you probably get that reference, nearly 2 years later, shows you how memorable that story was.) But there are definitely weeks I find myself thinking “oh, crap, what am I going to do this week?,” and then when I’m not looking for it, an idea will pop into my head. (For example, after Dick Cheney started popping up on news shows, plugging his ‘let’s-bomb-everyone’ website, I heard my husband & son in yet another volley of sophomoric, off-color jokes, and that inspired “I’m Sick Of Dick”.)
– And be open to suggestions – especially when you have a deadline. I am fortunate to have some wonderful subscribers & supporters, who occasionally send me ideas. I can’t always use every one, but my friend Lucien, who is the web designer for The Political Carnival, sent me the inspiration for this week’s song:
One of my favorite college classes examined children’s literature through the lens of cultural attitudes towards childhood. For example, the Brothers Grimm wrote all those dark, scary tales of witches & evil forests because in their day (early 19th century), childhood was just a smaller version of an awful adulthood. Poorer kids had to work on farms or in factories, even wealthier kids succumbed to disease, and stories had to prepare them for the general dangers of the world. In the Victorian era (later 19th century), children were viewed as pure and angelic, so their books were supposed to help enhance their innocence. And by the 20th century childhood really evolved into a separate phase of life, where books could enhance kids’ imagination or teach them valuable lessons. (And reading all these stories was a welcome change from typical academic fare – I loved sitting in the library, where my classmates were absorbed in Advanced Principles Of Molecular Biology or The Sociolinguistics of Anthropology, and they’d look over to see me enjoying “The Little Engine That Could.” But I digress . . . )
Sometimes, however, we would run into a classic piece of children’s literature that didn’t fit this historical trend – and in the case of some, like the Lewis Carroll ‘Alice’ books, as college students we naturally concluded his influence was pharmaceutical instead of cultural. Rabbits with pocket-watches? Disappearing grinning cats? Drinks & cakes that changed her perspective? (Okay, you can explain the Mad Hatter by the fact that the chemicals used in hatmaking were so toxic, they caused brain damage, hence the expression ‘mad as a hatter’, but Carroll’s Hatter was still pretty weird.) And for generations kids have enjoyed the strange, surreal world of Alice, thinking nothing in their lives would ever seem so crazy.
Until lately – the political scene has gone so out of whack, not even Lewis Carroll could have written it . . .