Fine Arts Spotlight: Janelle Monáe

In which I watch the finest tightrope act around

We end the month on a high note (pun intended) with a artist with a finger in every pie, who is tirelessly bringing joy and empowerment to our very own time. I’ve been an acolyte of Janelle Monáe’s for over two years now. Her acting range is incredible—between Hidden Figures and Moonlight, she was to 2016 as Rachel McAdams was to 2004. Seeing her balance art forms, it’s little wonder her breakout hit was called “Tightrope.” But I regard music as her flagship industry and think of her as a musical stateswoman first and foremost.

At the risk of putting words in her perfectly glossed mouth, I would venture to guess she casts herself in the same light. She was Prince’s protégée, and his stamp on her artistic and personal style is obvious: refer to “Make Me Feel” from her 2018 music/film project Dirty Computer. I see a lot of Bowie, too, in both her constant self-reinvention and her embrace of science-fiction-inspired identities. She does with robots what Bowie did with aliens. Over one “suite” and three full-length LPs, she has explored that concept from every angle, even building a continuous world for a whole cast of her characters to inhabit across all four works.

This world takes its name from Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking 1927 film Metropolis and tackles the same issue of humanity’s coexistence with artificial intelligence, but from the opposite perspective—the robots are the heroes rather than the villains, vying for acceptance in a hostile culture much the way Monáe does as a Black woman in present-day culture and the music biz. The personality and arc of her original alter-ego heroine, Cindi Mayweather, deepens in complexity starting with 2010’s The ArchAndroid; although she no longer exists as such by Dirty Computer, a new alter ego Jane is arguably just a more evolved version who retains many of her characteristics.

Unsurprisingly, this theatrical impulse and facility for storytelling stems from an original ambition to study musical theatre and perform on Broadway. After a degree from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy yielded few and sparse performance opportunities, she moved to Atlanta, which proved to be the ideal breeding ground for her plans, including the arts-collective-cum-record-label eventually known as Wondaland. I can’t even describe how much I love this name.

With early support from local superstars like OutKast’s Big Boi, plus a couple genre-crossing features on tracks like fun.’s “We Are Young,” Monáe made her mark on the mainstream by the age of thirty. Since then she’s only been carving her groove—metaphorically and musically—deeper and deeper. Dirty Computer was an album told within a film structure (or “emotion picture”), reflecting her growing interest in the visual medium, and garnered a Grammy nom for Album of the Year.

It seems to me that part of what has allowed her to flourish, beyond her own genius for captivating presentation, is that she has never forgotten the power of a good collaboration—likely due to her history as a guest for other artists. “Screwed,” featuring Zoë Kravitz, is a model dance-pop tune, but the kind of dancing in a musical number to add momentum to a mid-song set change. And whatever your genre niche, you know you’ve made it when you get Brian Wilson to do backing vocals.

All this to say I’ll be staying tuned for her next project, and I encourage you to do the same. Given the intricate conceptual effort that animates all her work, we can reasonably hope it will supply us with a dose of escapism from (please God) by-then-post-corona life.

At the very least, we can be certain it will get both our brains and our bodies moving. The “Tightrope” video may have been released on April Fool’s Day, but her moves are no joke.

Image: from Variety, 9 June 2020

Politics Spotlight: Shirley Chisholm

In which a Brooklyn baby goes for it

We’re jumping about a century forward from last week to celebrate a trailblazing figure in American politics. I have no doubt her name popped up in my AP U.S. History textbook, but by this point in the timeline we were glossing over a lot of things as we raced to prepare for the exam. No, there’s nothing wrong with our public education system, why do you ask?

Shirley Chisholm was a big one. The first Black Congresswoman and the first of both those demographics to seek the presidential nomination. As she lived from 30 November 1924 to New Year’s Day 2005, she witnessed and participated in a goodly number of pivotal moments in modern American history—and at least a couple of those moments were due to her.

Born Shirley St. Hill in Brooklyn to a Guyanese factory worker and a Barbadian seamstress, she studied at Brooklyn College and excelled on the debate team, prompting her professors to nudge her toward a political career. But she didn’t think the field held any serious prospects for a Black woman; understandable, considering Jim Crow practices in both legislation and general society had reached deadly heights in the ‘40s. Instead she taught preschool, along the way marrying Conrad Chisholm (a private investigator with the apt middle initial Q) and earning a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Columbia.

Throughout the ‘50s she was drawn into politics anyway, keeping her finger on the pulse of the burgeoning national civil rights movement and getting directly involved on the education front—she served as a consultant to the New York City Division of Day Care and became active at the Democratic Party club in her neighborhood of Bed-Stuy. By 1964 she was the second African-American in the New York State Legislature, and four years later she won a seat in Congress. There she championed all the major causes, and there were several competing for first priority: environmental regulation, racial and gender equity, redistribution of wealth, an end to the Vietnam War. And, like another Black icon of the era, she did it while rocking some spectacles.

She made such an impression that in 1972 she campaigned for the presidency. While her platform of ideas garnered enthusiastic support in theory, she came nowhere near the nomination, getting 152 of the delegates’ votes, or about ten percent of the total. But this can’t be a shock given that she was barred from the primary debates and allowed only one televised address. Her campaign was considered essentially symbolic. You’re telling me the majority of voters passed up this voice for four more years of Nixon?! Whatever, man. (Anyway, they only got two.)

Even having shot for the moon, as the saying goes, she landed among the stars: writing a book, co-founding the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, and going on to serve as the second woman (and first Black woman) on the House Rules Committee in 1977. That year she also ditched Chisholm—though she kept his name—and married Arthur Hardwick, Jr., a fellow New York State legislator.

In 1983 she ended her congressional career and returned to teaching, this time at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She maintained her co-founding streak by forming the National Political Congress of Black Women. In 1991 she was offered an ambassadorship to Jamaica but turned it down for health reasons and lived out the rest of her life in Florida. She is buried at Forest Lawn, which is okay compensation for not having been elected President.

I’m inclined to think much of America would sadly be no more receptive to Chisholm had she come along today as opposed to fifty years ago. But many of the issues she pushed have gained traction in the mainstream and are prioritized now the way they should have been then. And her presence paved the way for greater diversity of representation in all three branches of the federal government.

And did I mention the glasses!

Image: The New York Times

Education Spotlight: Elizabeth Jennings Graham

In which a teacher leads by example

This week’s spotlight is a misdirect. Elizabeth Jennings (Graham, although we’ll focus on her single-lady days) was a schoolteacher, but the incident and court case for which she became famous had nothing to do with her teaching. Rather, it got her a mention in the New York Transit Museum.

TL;DR: she was the original Rosa Parks.

The scene: Summer 1854, Sunday morning. A twenty-seven-year-old Jennings set out for church from her home in lower Manhattan. She was running late and made to board the first streetcar that came along. At this point in time all transit was run by privately owned companies; unsurprisingly, most of these companies catered only to white passengers. The streetcar Jennings was boarding belonged to the Third Avenue Railway, and the conductor was not eager to take on a woman of color. He tried both verbally and physically to force her to disembark, but she resisted. He flagged down a police officer and painted her as disturbing the other passengers. That none of the other passengers was bothered in the least by her presence mattered little to the police officer: he and the conductor together managed to remove her from the car. (Tell me again how police aren’t violence workers.)

Her church group found out what happened and were naturally enraged. They held a rally the next day. Jennings sued the Third Avenue Railway and was represented by a young lawyer named Chester A. Arthur. Yep, the future President. In the spring of 1855 she won her suit and collected damages for the indignity she had suffered. This was acknowledged by all as a step forward. But almost two decades would pass—full of lobbying by Black organizers, not to mention incidents and suits filed (and lost) by other Black passengers—before the New York City transit system was desegregated. That puts us in the early 1870s, only about a century and a half ago. And this was a progressive Northern city.

Oh, and in the interim there was a little tiff between the states. People don’t talk about it much.

An aside that I think bears relevance: Horace Greeley and his New York Tribune really milked the Jennings case for all it was wroth. If Greeley’s name rings a bell, he’s the guy who said, “Go West, young man!”—the guy who was a feminist, socialist, and vegetarian but who doesn’t appear to have given much thought to the rights of Indigenous peoples. If Black freedmen were fighting to be recognized on the streets of New York, Indigenous communities were set so far back that they’re still recovering. When it comes to acknowledgement, access, and reparations for communities of color, there is always, always, always more work to be done.

Anyway, I heard of Elizabeth Jennings Graham just the other week through a favorite travel/edutainment resource, Atlas Obscura. I’m now very glad to know her story. She—or, more accurately, the reaction she caused—is an example of the truth that bigotry is taught and learned as opposed to innate, and that people will actually ride a bus together in peace if only you leave them alone. She also offers proof that you need not confine yourself to doing one thing with your life, and that the most significant thing you do might not be at all related to how you earn your living.

Image: from the Zinn Education Project

Poetry Spotlight: Phillis Wheatley

In which I return to a childhood heroine

Happy February, all. My American readers will know that this month is Black History Month. I’m going to be spotlighting a few important figures, some of whom I’ve admired for years and others of whom I’ve only just learned abut recently. Also, they’re all going to be women, because Black women are a generally neglected cross-section of the demographic, and as a woman myself I want to do what I can to uplift them and their achievements.

To start us off, fittingly, is the poet who started America off. I was familiar with Phillis Wheatley for quite a while before it occurred to me to openly recommend her work, which began when my fifth-grade class was searching for a new group reading-time text. She is one of the first writers I remember telling other people they should read.

And, if I do say so myself, I had good reason. Wheatley was the first African-American writer to publish a book of poetry. She was born circa 1753 and sold into slavery at age seven or eight, eventually arriving at the Boston home of John and Susanna Wheatley, who named her for the slave ship that had transported her. She was tutored in reading and writing by the entire Wheatley family, first in English and then in Latin, and by age fourteen she was reading  and imitating some of the most renowned poets of both traditions: Pope and Milton in the former, Vergil and Horace in the latter.

That same year she composed “To the University of Cambridge in New England” (that is, Harvard), and the Wheatleys decided to go all in on her education. She accompanied their son Nathaniel to London in the summer of 1773, when she was about twenty years old. The Wheatleys’ prediction that she was more likely to be published in England than in the colonies turned out to be correct. The Countess of Huntingdon financed the publication of Phillis’s first volume of poetry without ever meeting her. She was supposed to have an audience with George III, but it never came to fruition (he was maybe preoccupied with the Beatles?). As for the rest of the London literati, she won them over with ease, and her volume appeared in a matter of weeks. (Remember Washington Irving? Well, Phillis did it first!)

Her poems were a hit on both sides of the Atlantic by the time she sailed back to Boston. The Wheatleys emancipated her, and she became the coveted guests of such illustrious folk as George Washington himself; but no matter to whom she wrote, or how eloquently, on the inherent evils of the slave trade and the inherent rights of Black human beings, the message was not ready to be received. After marrying a free Black grocer named John Peters, she was forced to go to work for a second source of income, which mostly involved household duties that she had never had to do before. She died in the winter of 1784, aged thirty-one, with her work little remembered.

I am fascinated by stories of creators who achieve acclaim in their fields and then are largely forgotten by the time of their deaths. In Phillis Wheatley’s case, I think it has also to do with the adage about the white establishment loving Black culture but not Black people: there was a readership eager to embrace her paeans to institutions of higher education or to the heroes of the Revolution but equally willing to withdraw their support the moment she used her platform to address the issues that mattered to her and a major portion of the population of the colonies. Many, many writers would follow the blueprint she laid, with astonishingly similar results, over subsequent centuries.

For my part, Wheatley helped me teach a grown woman and a bunch of ten-year-olds about the fancy s that looked like an f. If that’s my best hope of spreading the gospel of Phillis, I’ve got no plans to rest.

Image: portrait attributed to Scipio Moorhead

A Shot in the HEAD, A Tip of the (Green Wool) Hat

In which the young generation is…still saying something

I had reason to get the Monkees on the brain a couple months ago, so I wrote a post. I’ve had more reason since—reading Mike Nesmith’s autobiography Infinite Tuesday, catching references to them in The Queen’s Gambit—so here I am writing another post. Most of all because I binged their hit TV series (1966-8) start to finish over the holidays and it left me with some THOUGHTS.

To begin at the end, which is to say the beginning: A reputable source reminded me of having seen their experimental suicide-mission film Head ten years ago to the day. I recall the night vividly, the family gathered around the TV. I recall little of the film itself aside from Davy Jones cavorting about to a Harry Nilsson music-hall number. As for the rest of it, I recall feeling that I, for one, was too young for this stuff. Who’s to say how my younger sister felt.

Believe it or not, that was my visual entrée to the Prefab Four. (Yikes.) My context for them had been exclusively aural—the first song I remember hearing was “She,” for reasons later elucidated—and would return to being such throughout high school. I’d even heard the soundtrack to Head by the time I met them onscreen. They sounded like summertime, like my family’s summers in those years, shuttling from graduation party to church choir rehearsal to supermarket, circling the dusty city with its parking lots baking in the sun. Never mind that it was the opposite coast. Their songs, better than anyone’s, evoked the atmosphere: joy for no reason, energy in the midst of nothing. Being born a ‘someday man,’ and porpoises laughing, and where Mary was going to, and stepping stones. The warmth lingers in the sound, despite the distance of time and a new city in the throes of a rare protracted snowfall.

My dad was devoted to the series as a child. Its absence from his own children’s education seems odd in hindsight, but no matter; things slip through the cracks. The music’s effect on me foretold that I would eventually learn for myself just what it was that Head had permitted its participants to escape.

‘Eventually’ arrived during finals week of my sophomore spring, when I discovered a handful of episodes on YouTube. I had spent the semester in a morose mood and was grateful for the pick-me-up. Now—under far removed circumstances, investing quarantine hours in my watchlist—I’ve cherished the chance to revisit the show, this time in full, and examine it through the increasingly nuanced lens they give you the more life you live. (Thanks, lens guys.)

And what a ride. Here is a sampling of my contemporaneous reactions.

  • Boy, NBC has come a long way. I fell in love with 30 Rock for its smart writing and pop-historical references and surreptitious teaching moments about cultural touchstones I might otherwise never have heard of. Not the kind of humor you get on The Monkees—but dang if a little slapstick doesn’t take your mind off the bleakness outside.
  • Speaking of, I judge the humor of this series to be roughly three-quarters one-liners and physical comedy to one-quarter actual thought-out jokes. Meaning that when those jokes do crop up, they’re real zingers. And physical comedy is difficult, so I can appreciate good execution.
  • Pleasantly surprised at the realistic depiction of the band’s struggle with money. However, they don’t appear to be the ‘nobodys’ they’d need to be to justify that struggle, as they go out and are usually recognized by somebody. Just how well-known are they in the MCU (Monkees Cinematic Universe)? But this could be accounted for by the fact that trouble does seem to follow wherever they go. Not a big deal in the end.
  • Besides, they could save up if they just moved off the beach. Sounds like a job for the Property Brothers!
  • Fun fact: while in L.A. in 2018, I wandered onto Beachwood Drive and it occurred to me that “hey, the Monkees lived here!” So I went looking for the address—in vain, because the street is very long and also the house was a soundstage.
  • Even considering the broadly objectionable/offensive mid-‘60s treatment of women and POC, arguably the best line of the whole series belongs to a Black man in the Mexico episode. “If you guys can be Mexican bandits, I can be a Mexican parking lot attendant.” Gold.
  • Mike’s concern for his hat is an adorable bit. Making sure it’s still on his head, trimming the poof (like it grows??). You, my friend, can leave your hat on. *wink*
  • How many men of Davy’s stature would be viable romantic leads nowadays? This show was open-minded in its way. Though I do love to see Peter get the girl. God rest their chick-magnet souls.
  • Come to think of it, you can always rely on a Peter-centric episode to be a strong one.
  • Did these guys low-key invent the art of looking into camera? Plenty of shows break the fourth wall, but this one might have had only three to begin with.
  • I can’t understand how Mike doesn’t bop to anything. His bandmates groove along during their gigs, and he just stands there. They’re such danceable songs! On the other hand…
  • The teenagers ‘dancing’ in these gig scenes…do they…know what dancing is? Have they ever seen dancing? Shouldn’t they have grown up on Fred and Ginger, or Gene Kelly?
  • Micky is outrageously talented. His stand-up routine as ‘Locksley Mendoza’ in the talent-show episode had me rolling. (James Cagney should be flattered.) And the vocal range on that boy. Nobody could end “Mary, Mary” the way he does.
  • Episode in which the gang help Davy’s latest girlfriend pass her history test: First off, great premise. This reenactment of the Hamilton-Burr conflict featuring Mike as Burr supplies even MORE evidence against Hamilton. That said, they commit multiple violations of the code duello, chiefly that they aren’t standing ten paces apart and there’s no doctor present. #DuelResponsibly
  • Delighted to see them perform “Randy Scouse Git”—maybe my first favorite song of theirs. The percussion, particularly the timpani, is outstanding. And though it may be disguised by a wacky whole, “why don’t you cut your hair” is a scathing remark on the inanities they and their friends “the four kings of EMI” endured in the press. This is the essence of Micky as wise fool: keenness and cleverness masquerading as lunacy. (His McCartney-esque scatting is the cherry on top.)
  • A couple seasons more and there’d have been an episode called “The Other David Jones” featuring Bowie as guest star(man). But I get why it didn’t last that long. (But a group rendition of “Space Oddity” to round out the half-hour…imagine the ratings!)
  • I feel like the Monkeemobile could be fleshed out. Does it do anything special, e.g. transform, like its namesake the Batmobile?
  • Love “For Pete’s Sake.” Quite pleased that it was instated as the closing theme. I think Peter was the secret weapon of the bunch: as songwriter, instrumentalist, even actor.
  • A word about ‘secret weapons.’ It seems to me the concept has been mangled. Mr. Schue on Glee uses the term to describe Unique, of the rival glee club Vocal Adrenaline; but I see nothing behind-the-scenes about the character leaping pinball machines while belting “Pinball Wizard” (one of the strongest numbers in the whole series, by the way). Misnomer, Mr. Schue! Secret weapons are secret!!!
  • God, did I just misdirect to Glee? Even this show is more logical than Glee. And quite possibly more sensitive, taken in historical context. Where was I?
  • “Hey Micky, wanna read my palm?” “No, I’ll wait until it gets turned into a movie.” (The brilliance of this delivery is that they’re distracted, on the way to do something else. As if the group dynamic is subconscious. Good stuff when it’s good.)
  • Okay, the dancing-school episode is among the ones I saw way back when. If memory serves, Mike became my favorite in the scene where he kisses the secretary. The entire exchange lasts twenty seconds tops, and WOW is it hot. I just about fell over. A romantic subplot is rare for him, as he was married IRL (why do I always go for the married ones), but when he gets that dazed look on his face and murmurs, “Who needs music?” Jeez. I’m gonna take a walk.
  • Didn’t realize how tired those same few songs were getting until I reached season two and got a new set of the same few songs. The producers underestimated their viewers’ short-term memory.
  • When Micky and Peter go into the saloon in the Texas episode and the prostitute approaches them and Micky stage-whispers, “Not now, it’s a family show.” Ha!
  • The fellas do not get enough credit for their harmonies. When they show up, they show up.
  • Surprising that an early Randy Newman composition never found its way into their hands, especially when his pal Nilsson was writing for them. Ships passing in the night.
  • And as for Nilsson, “Cuddly Toy” is a mean song. The market was glutted with those, but you wouldn’t expect one out of the mouths of these guys. #StopSlutShaming
  • SNL was still, what, a decade away? This was the comedy frontier. The future was wide open.
  • “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round” is one of a bizarre and troubling genre of songs—see also Sinatra’s “South of the Border,” and I guess Elton John’s “Grow Some Funk of Your Own”—about men from former colonialist superpowers going to Mexico, seducing women across a language barrier, and then abandoning them. I’d ask how we ever condoned this except that we’ve condoned worse things. Mike on lead vocal is a plus, but I’m relieved he didn’t write it.
  • And yet I like the song. Which goes double for the songs Mike did write. They wrap an often cryptic choice of diction in these sonic packages that translate really effectively; they seem very much to come from an approachable human experience. I mentioned his autobiography to a friend the other day and may have gone bright red when I said his name. Am I getting sidetracked again?
  • The ballet episode is good! The principal dancer continually refers to Peter’s beautiful face until he becomes simply ‘the Face’ to everyone. As Micky puts it, “Shut up, Face!”
  • I’m not accustomed to self-contained episodic shows; I engaged in ‘serious’ TV viewing after the age of season/character arcs was well underway. Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider must have looked at each other and said, “Don’t do that.”
  • “He’s not short. Davy, stand up and show ‘em how tall you are.” “I am standing up.” Never gets old.
  • “Sometime in the Morning” is a lovely song. Not sure why I didn’t know it sooner. All hail Queen Carole.
  • I think I could have a little fun incorporating the Classic Scare into my everyday behavior.
  • Anyone else reminded of “Hey, Hey, We’re the Monks” from Galavant? Now there was a show cancelled in its prime. Sigh.
  • Davy is my favorite jockey, and Micky is my favorite gangster. Look out, National Velvet and Pacino, respectively.
  • “BUZZ OFF, CHARLIE!!!!!” : me, whenever I am interrupted for any reason
  • These four excel at ‘yes, and.’ They each use their talents to bring out the best in one another. Giving improv a good name.
  • I wonder if, to outside observers of Earth, the villains in our lives are as plain as the villains in this show and we’re too stupid to recognize them.
  • So my attraction to Mike evidently transcends gender presentation: he makes a great princess. What is this, Into the Woods? Or, in all likelihood, closer to Twelfth Night?
  • On the selfsame subject, both Micky and Peter make unsettlingly convincing women.
  • In the circus episode, Micky keeps explaining that he’s humming an old TV theme and no one gets the reference—do I know that feel…
  • Re: casual misogyny, the salt in the wound is that we’re frequently set up to expect more of the girls we see. The biker gang invites a promising ‘battle of the sexes’-type situation, until their boyfriends turn up to win them back and it devolves into an outdated masculinity contest. Or the girl band who tie with them in the talent show, only to be relegated to their backup dancers during the final number. Would a duet really be too much to ask?!
  • Circus episode again: Peter suggests they “snick” in, and the others go, “it’s not snick, man, it’s sneak, what’s wrong with you?” Cracked me up. Pronunciation disputes will never not be funny.
  • It is amazing to me that the producers selected a quartet of guys out of all the guys in the world and HALF of them have the SAME BIRTHDAY. Albeit three years apart. (Hence Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones—because Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Nesmith doesn’t have the same ring to it.)
  • All right, if I hear “Last Train to Clarksville” one more time I’m getting on a train and disappearing.
  • “OH look at that garage door!” #DigUglyThings
  • If and when I live with friends, I’m absolutely getting a gavel and calling house meetings. Just to spice things up.
  • Where do I invest in the New Tork Stock Exchange?? Shut up and take my money!
  • Was rock-paper-scissors not a thing in the ‘60s? Did everyone really go around saying “one, two, three, shoot”? Talk about the dark ages.
  • In the episode where the four of them are supposed to be fighting over Julie Newmar, I don’t buy that any of them are in love. I think they go all in on painting murals and riding motorcycles and scaling telephone poles for lack of anything better to do. They’re like, *shrug* might as well.
  • Moral of most of these stories: do not attempt to help someone unless they explicitly ask for your help!!
  • I first heard “The Door Into Summer” in college. I liked it straightaway and have never cooled on it. It’s so harmonically satisfying…I can’t explain.
  • Ah yes, the grand entrance of the Moog synthesizer. The brothers Wilson broke out the theremin and it was all downhill from there.
  • Mike has several unexpectedly moving moments. The episode where he runs for mayor and goes on TV to resign because he realizes his campaign has been compromised. The episode where he asks their accidental tenant Millie (a charming Rose Marie) to make him a success. The end of the excellent episode “The Devil and Peter Tork” where he gives a speech to the Devil himself about the power of love and how Peter has always had it in him to play the harp. So sincere and vulnerable—man, I did not sign up to have my heartstrings tugged this way! You’re killing me, Nez.
  • I sang “Riu Chiu” when I was sixteen, and boy am I glad it’s got its due from Hollywood. A very underrated Christmas carol. They nail it.
  • Among other indicators of a shoestring budget—ahem recycled performance montages—they run at least a minute short half the time?? But it’s for the best; the interview segments are gems. “I’m the ugliest!” “Okay, I lose!”
  • And it’s so cute how shy Micky is in the interviews. I would have anticipated him to be outgoing. I suppose it was a gradual drawing out.
  • This episode where they’re being chased half-heartedly across Paris by some girls who have only kind of heard of them? STILL makes more sense than Emily in Paris.
  • Honestly, I relate most to Davy at the end of the day, what with his show-biz background and—would you look at that, I’m about his height, which is not short for girls like it is for guys. Love you, man. You deserved better than Oliver. But I won’t get into that here.
  • Respect for Jack Williams, on- and off-screen MVP. “I may be the properties manager to you, but to 20 million teenagers [points into camera] I’m the customs man.” There’s someone who knows his worth.
  • “Hey—uh, ma’am, I—I can’t see with the hat—hey LADY WITH THE HAT!” Takes one to know one, Mike, takes one to know one…
  • Surely I’m not the first to have noticed the peculiar time signature of “Love is Only Sleeping.” 7/8 on the verse, to be exact. Kudos to Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann for sneaking—snicking?—it in. (Meanwhile I could well be the last to work out the implication of the title…)
  • Can’t stop thinking about the interview Peter did a decade after the fact, where he looked like a rugged mountain man and elaborated on how capitalism breeds aggression and the path to lasting peace is via socialism. If we were going to put a former actor in the White House, it should have been this guy. I wouldn’t have minded being marooned somewhere with him.
  • Bob and Bert may have been inspired by A Hard Day’s Night, but by the time they got the show off the ground it was emitting Help! vibes—and by the end listing toward Magical Mystery Tour
  • You know what they say: behind every great act is a great mentor, even if he’s a dummy. (Who you callin’ a dummy?!)
  • So…has the Texas prairie chicken been saved? What’s our status on that?
  • Now, whenever I suspect I’ve misplaced something, I turn to an imaginary camera and exclaim, “IT’S GONE!”

Image: from S1 E17, “The Case of the Missing Monkee” (that being Peter, of course). A quality shot of them all—Davy looks like a matinee idol.

BRAVE NEW WORLD is Not a Dystopia

In which I take arms against a sea of troubles and wind up drowning


How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,

That has such people in’t!


‘Tis new to thee.

: The Tempest, Act V Scene 1


Friends, Americans, countrymen! We have entered the next administration—rung in by an inaugural ceremony which provided nothing short of crushing relief.

On the leeward side of a tempestuous four years, it appeared a proper moment to read Aldous Huxley’s defining opus, published in 1932. Imagine my surprise to find that the dystopia it depicts is…not only closer to a utopia, but really no better or worse than the ‘topia’ I live in.

This isn’t to disparage our ‘topia.’ Or, not exactly. What I mean is that the features of the World State in AF 632 (Anno Ford—about CE 2540) overlap generously with the features of the technologically advanced and overall materially wealthy society we’re used to. Also, the problems it doesn’t account for are problems we have ourselves. It’s a story of people determining how much they want to fit in or stand out. It’s a portrait of family trauma and accidental bonds. It’s a discourse on the coping mechanisms by which we process harsh realities, and the possibilities (and implications) of creating a reality that eliminates harshness altogether. It’s a treatise on what constitutes happiness. And yes, it’s a hierarchical and discriminatory world, but what world isn’t?

Huxley was a pacifist and hailed from a family of biologists, zoologists, and botanists, as well as teachers and writers. These factors inform his work deeply, and they took me aback. I steeled myself to witness the paramilitary violence rampant in our own state—don’t tell me if I’m thinking of Orwell’s 1984, I haven’t read it and I don’t care—but suffice it to say that in Brave New World there is essentially none.

Unless you count a bioengineered social structure a form of intrinsic violence. The nuclear family does not exist: mother and father are all but profanities. Human beings are conceived in batches from the mitosis of a single embryo with one of a selection of DNA, grown on assembly lines based on Henry Ford’s model, then ‘born’ from decanters and raised in one of five aptitude-based social strata, Alpha down to Epsilon. A series of Pavlovian experiments conditions them for consumption and complacency. Ultimately some go to work at actual jobs, while others’ job is merely to consume. Through a regimen called hypnopedia, they absorb slogans and jingles about the world so as to come into the world convinced of both the superiority of their own stratum and the necessity of the others. “Everyone belongs to everyone else.” “We can’t do without anyone.” “Ending is better than mending.” “Wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure.” Wait, no, that last is the catchphrase of Ravenclaw House at Hogwarts. (The World State never prizes wit except as funneled into propaganda—hence the plight of gifted yet disillusioned head rhyme-writer Helmholtz Watson.)

Sleep-learning reinforces these ideas to the point that they can, and regularly do, quote them reflexively in couplets. It’s as if the advertising industry skipped the middleman of a product and went straight to marketing a (government-sponsored) way of life. The endgame of capitalism, if you will. Meanwhile, the corporeal design is universally youthful, and blood transfusions keep even the oldest people spry—when they do eventually die, around age sixty, they are ushered off without fanfare, and children are conditioned to embrace the concept by being given candy on ‘death days.’

Clearly we’re dealing with a limited range of human experience. But the government doesn’t look at it that way: indeed, it believes it is preserving its citizens from the barbarism and indignity of natural life. The Nine Years’ War and accompanying economic collapse (their ‘tempest’), after which the new regime came to power, incited the destruction of all cultural and historical institutions—museums, textbooks, etc.—which prompt people to feel and, thus, to be unstable. As Mustapha Mond, World Controller for Western Europe, articulates to a group of Alpha students near the beginning of the novel, people must be conditioned identically in order to be spared the agony of individual suffering/sentimentality/attachment as plagued the olden days of family and liberalism and democracy; and the morals of the state must be so ingrained into their consciousness as to be less ‘truth’ than ‘indisputable fact.’ The global motto is, after all, Community—Identity—Stability.

How many of our own cultural institutions have been called into question? How much have we been tortured by an inability to distinguish—or accept—truth?

Furthermore, the people don’t feel their experience is limited. As far as they’re concerned, the state has set them “free to have the most wonderful time.” They fly in personal ships: they are presented with an array of synthetic entertainments—the ‘feelies’ are movies with physically titillating special effects; they contract almost no diseases; and they have at their disposal a drug called soma. Should they ever find themselves in discomfort, they take a tablet (or several) and their emotions are regulated. If they take enough, they fall into a sleep which functions as a holiday, allowing them to travel wherever their hearts desire. Psycho-soma-tic. What occurs in the mind manifests in the body.

There are even slogans for soma: “‘Was’ and ‘will’ make me ill. I take a gram and only am.” “One cubic centimeter cures ten gloomy sentiments.”

Oh, and they love Henry Ford. He is the focal point of the closest thing they have to a religion: they use his name as an oath, build their calendar around the date of the Model T’s debut, and even change the name of Big Ben to Big Henry. That ‘Ford’ is sometimes conflated with ‘Freud’ speaks volumes: this is a society that conflates technological progress with a less inhibited, more virtuous existence. Technology is good. Technology is equivalent to goodness. Had the novel appeared post-Apple, Steve Jobs would be a minor deity. As he arguably is to us now.

Additionally, because reproductive sex is obsolete, erotic experimentation is encouraged from a young age; and after one ages into regular sexual activity, promiscuity is not only permitted but practically expected. When we meet Lenina Crowne (pronounced Lenin-a, as in Vladimir), a Beta nurse, her biggest problem is being judged for having had a four-month fling with one man—being a veritable anti-Hester Prynne. Despite her friends’ nagging about upsetting the balance, she has no plans to pursue any other sexual partners.

Any, that is, except Bernard Marx. (There are other characters named Benito, Engels, Trotsky. Subtle it ain’t.) Bernard is an Alpha-Plus whom his fellow Alphas demean for his stunted stature. He’s a kind of Quasimodo, an outsider despite belonging to the highest class—or a George Harrison, if you prefer, underappreciated and more embittered by the day. It’s clear that his value as a sleep-learning specialist is his sole means of influence. ‘Miserable,’ he’s usually described; his boss, the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning at London’s fetal-development facility, looks out for an opportunity to fire him over his surly attitude.

See, Bernard is Not Like The Other Workers. He believes life is more than a homogenous cycle of distractions and games. He isn’t impressed by the Solidarity Services praising Ford and his industrial innovation, working citizens up into an orgasmic frenzy. And he derides Lenina’s penchant for the empty spoils of the system. When she insists that it can’t be that bad if “everybody’s happy nowadays” (the excellent Buzzcocks song takes its title from this passage), that’s precisely Bernard’s objection.

Still he invites her along to New Mexico to study the “pre-moderns” who practice natural birth and still speak Zuni and Spanish at an Indigenous reservation (in our terms) known as Malpais—even a rudimentary familiarity with Romance languages will get you ‘evil country.’ Lenina requires large doses of soma after witnessing their supposed atrocities; but she and the odd young man John, aka ‘the Savage,’ are drawn to each other.

How may I describe John? John is an idealist to Bernard’s cynic. During a dark childhood, in which he came to recognize his mother Linda as the village ‘whore’ despite the fact that the men who visited her were the adulterers, he learned to read—and make sense of the world—from The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. He quotes the plays extensively and demonstrates a preference for Miranda’s titular exclamation. His vision of love has been so shaped that, when Lenina expresses her desire in a typically physical fashion, he renounces her for what he considers her looseness, causing her to flee in fear. (Unsurprisingly, just about all his misogynist citations come from Hamlet. The word ‘strumpet’ crops up a lot.)

When Bernard brings John and Linda back to the London facility, they wreak just the havoc he’s hoped for by revealing themselves to be his boss’s long-lost girlfriend and son. (Cue the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme.) The flabbergasted Director resigns in shame, while everyone else becomes instantly obsessed with John—and, by extension, with Bernard.

If instability is public enemy #1, these two interlopers embody it. So you might forgive me for anticipating swift and terrible retribution. Not so. Linda, whose aged and distended appearance is belabored by both narrator and community, wastes away under soma in a “Hospital for the Dying.” Her son’s grief is gruesomely fascinating to all; and when he starts a riot by throwing away great quantities of soma tablets, the police’s tack is to spray the gathering with soma vapor. Go to all lengths to maintain calm and happiness.

John’s subsequent debate with Controller Mond is a chapter worthy of Tolstoy. Political, spiritual, spanning the meaning of free will and the purpose of humanity. Even as the disgraced Bernard is exiled to a remote island for his long-sought chance to be an individual—a fate he now curses—John is usurping him as ‘protagonist’ and ‘hero,’ if these are the correct terms. John resists Mond’s philosophies, demanding, as Mond summarizes it, the right to grow sick, frail, and reliant on God, and “to be unhappy.” He also makes a big deal of having a name, which foreshadows another John (Proctor, of The Crucible) by a couple decades.

The supreme irony is that this ‘Savage’ would be extraordinarily erudite by present-day standards. Mond, who would be on the same level, recognizes the extent of John’s knowledge—he himself keeps some Shakespeare and other forbidden texts inside a safe—and enumerates his reasons for the population’s benighted condition in a sort of Socratic Apology. Well, they’ve both got a Socratic edge. There is an air of The Republic, perhaps even of the Pilate/Jesus dynamic, to the dialogue. It’s a section that sets me reeling.

John then removes to the countryside for a life of asceticism. Henceforth he is referred to only as ‘the Savage,’ though he fulfills his final ‘John’ identity (John the Baptist) by engaging in self-punishment. He lashes himself in imitation of the Malpais ritual, attempting to purge himself of lust. This performative suffering draws a crowd over the course of days, for no one has ever conceived of passion or emotion so strong as to provoke violence. Nevertheless, the thirst for blood sport is quickly aroused. They egg him on until he attacks a spectator—Lenina, the victim of the mounting conflict between his longing for Shakespearean intimacy and his horror of the mercenary quality of sex. At last, unable to reconcile his environment with his ideals, he hangs himself. The state has actively perpetrated nothing; he is driven to enact his own demise.

I hesitated to use either ‘protagonist’ or ‘hero’ earlier. I’m not sure there is one. John would seem to be, his forgotten thousand-year-old poetry noble and refined in contrast to the infantile rhymes of the World State…but isn’t the hero supposed to win? Bernard could be justifiably classified as an antihero: his longtime wish is granted (cue “I Want to Break Free”) the moment it’s too late, after he is addicted to the acceptance and prestige accorded him by his ‘discovery’ of John. Sour grapes indeed. What does it mean to win in such an environment? Who comes out on top?

Therein lies the quandary we face, too, I think. It seems the idea is to hold the World State in contempt and to reject its proposal of hyper-surveillance; but it also seems the rulers act on a conviction that harmony is secured via the happiness of the ruled. Communal living and child-rearing are even practiced today by the Kalahari bush people, reportedly among the happiest societies on earth. Wouldn’t the offer of a life with guaranteed health, security, and company hold at least a little appeal?

Besides, have we not already succumbed to hyper-surveillance, if in slightly different forms? Are we not as comfortable, and as subservient? We wonder how much ‘soma’ it will take to satisfy us—our soma being our phones, sources of bottomless preoccupation, enjoyment, and solace, liminal spaces where we trade personal information for hits of dopamine. Plugging in invites further plugging in: to opt out would be antisocial. No matter how much we get, we’ll want more.

And who’s to say we are treated to the full range of human experience? Capitalism and consumerism put us in constant anxiety. All manner of trauma prevent us from living to the fullest. We fall prey to bitter infighting over divergent belief systems as opposed to directing our energy toward the forces that keep us all down. We suffer all sorts of hang-ups around sex. The pharmaceutical industry has us dependent on various substances. Like Bernard’s friend Helmholtz Watson, we hunger to do real substantive work. We live in fear of our neighbors’ judgment. We die of disease too soon. To be sure, we are hampered at every turn.

Yet we light upon things to be happy about all the time. We somehow soothe our nerves and bury our hatchets, even if we’ve found ourselves with a bunch more hatchets these days than we ever remembered having. Are we engaging in our own kind of self-flagellation? Is our happiness more significant because of the light it provides in the darkness of the world? Or would we do better to do away with that darkness and design a world of permanent light and content?

Gee, I didn’t even get to talk about Helmholtz, the character with whom I might empathize most. Or about Shakespeare, and what exactly all this has to do with The Tempest and its themes. Or about Ford. Do you know how little of my time I’ve devoted to Henry Ford? I probably haven’t intentionally thought of him since Schoolhouse Rock.

Maybe the point I’m arriving at is that if this fictional culture is dystopian, then so is our nonfictional one. Maybe I’m so disarmed at having read about voluntary submission, rather than a police state marked by brute force, that I don’t know whether to find it abhorrent or attractive. Maybe I’m left with no point at all. Huxley has handed me more enormous ideas than I can juggle gracefully. My cones are really scrambled here.

Mond was right about having to choose between happiness and high art. Good Ford.

Anyhow, there’s no need to panic. We stand nose to nose with that brave new world, equally capable of wonder and woe. The question of how to govern with dignity and induce national flourishing is at the forefront of minds everywhere. After a tempest of political and economic damage, where do we go from here? Whatever the answer, whatever’s to come, we are present for it and part of it.

So…give me your hands if we be friends, and Robin shall restore amends. Hang on, that’s not a fairy from The Tempest. But the comedies could’ve made a better showing. Forget it. I’m going to scroll through my phone until I fall asleep.

P.S. I’d like Huxley to know that his shout-out to Kurfürstendamm did not fall on deaf ears. That’s where my friends and I go to get wrecked on rose-petal cake and fancy cappuccinos. Thank you, sir. I feel seen.

Dedicated to Gillian—hoping for more bookish conversation.

Image: first edition

The Strange Mirror of UNORTHODOX

In which I consider what makes a home


A couple months have passed since I watched Anna Winger’s four-part Netflix series Unorthodox, based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir, and I’m working through how close it hit to home. Not in terms of Judaism, in terms of my physical location. The action is divided between Brooklyn and Berlin: the heroine flees her life in the former to start over in the latter. And it’s set in the present day, so it couldn’t feel more immediate.

We observe nineteen-year-old Esther “Esty” Shapiro throughout the time periods on either side of her marriage to Yanky Shapiro. All seems in order for her to take her place as a woman in the New York Hasidic community that raised her. Hers has been a more communal upbringing than others’, having been left long ago by her mother and let down by her alcoholic father. Esty shares a deep bond with her grandparents and extended family: they, particularly her grandmother, foster her love of music.

But her union with Yanky gets off to a rocky start, especially where their sex life is concerned. Esty takes a while to become comfortable with intimacy, and her husband grows more anxious and suspicious the longer she goes without conceiving. Ultimately Esty elects to break from the community and track her mother down. With the covert help of her piano teacher, from whom she continued to take lessons despite her husband’s disapproval, Esty secures passage to Berlin and slips away one afternoon.

What follows is a discovery of roots, passions, and history the likes of which I think can happen only in a place as loaded as Berlin. Friendless and afraid of what awaits her, Esty seeks refuge among a group of conservatory students who both encourage her musicality and challenge her skills as a pianist. She does finally come face to face with her mother, the consequences of which I won’t divulge. And meanwhile, Yanky and his cousin Moishe are on Esty’s trail.

It’s hard to describe what a trip it was just to see shots of the city I had at my doorstep. Weißensee. Alexanderplatz. The yellow of the trams, the familiar curve of their movements. The linguistic fluidity fascinated me too; Esty and her family often communicate in Yiddish, which is sort of a corrupted form of German, though it is clear when she lands on German soil that she has no grasp of actual German. As for the soundtrack, Schubert’s art song “An die Musik” (To Music) recurs at intervals, from a recording on Esty’s grandmother’s turntable to Esty’s performance during an audition at her newfound friends’ academy.

Guess what? That piece was a staple of my college voice lessons. I sang it in a chamber not unlike hers for an audience not unlike hers.

I’ve been in Berlin just over a year and a half now, and still I hesitate to confer that weighty four-letter word on it. It’s certainly the place where I live and where I have learned to conduct an independent adult life…but home? I’ve always been a little unsure of that word: it’s a somewhat fraught concept in my scattered, itinerant family. Watching a girl from a radically different environment arrive in Berlin under radically different conditions and yet grapple with the same questions made me feel seen and represented in a way I hadn’t at all expected.

Mazel tov to the creators!

Image: omg that’s my best friend in the background

It’s getting to the point…

In which it’s a matter of mind over music—or is it?

Yesterday a favorite podcaster of mine who often engages in discussions of mental health issues—and who is herself studying to be a therapist—read out a message from a female listener who described her boyfriend’s unwillingness or inability to help her through an emotionally turbulent period. And I thought, sounds like a classic Stephen Stills situation.

I refer to the pop epic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” which Stills wrote and which his supergroup Crosby, Stills, & Nash released in the autumn of 1969 as a single off their debut album. The work was inspired by Stills’ rapidly deteriorating romance with fellow singer Judy Collins. Now, I’m not exactly a fan of Collins, but if either of them is going to get my sympathy in this case, it ain’t Stills.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve loved the song from the first listen. I don’t even remember the circumstances, but the impact of those opening lines on me was immediate and lasting. I was very young, for sure, and considered psychological turmoil just something you learned to carry on your own: I didn’t know really good relationships were about sharing burdens and offering mutual support. It was hard for me to imagine trusting a friend in that way, so the idea of a romance with that kind of dynamic was as yet totally beyond me. But the harmonies quieted those questions and lulled me away.

That said, age and experience have put me more and more at odds with the perspective the song expresses. Not many songs, especially at the time, contained mention of mental illness at all, let alone as a clinical condition that required treatment or ‘work’—outside of the work everyone did, which was simply not talking about it. (In an extreme example of the distractions and outlets we invented for ourselves, our involvement in Vietnam was at its height.) Stills felt that his relationship with Collins was suffering for numerous reasons, one being a routine of therapy sessions that placed constraints on her time. The days and times of the week listed in the second movement (Friday evening / Sunday in the afternoon) correspond with those sessions. I doubt Stills consulted Collins before adding this personal detail; it seems not to have kept her from admiring the final product, but it reads to me nonetheless like an invasion of privacy.

Mostly because I get the impression that narrator-Stills resents addressee-Collins’ commitment to getting help and doesn’t give credence to the idea that she could be in need of medical attention. He blames it for taking her away from him and responds reactively, never mind her opinions on her own health. He is essentially passive.

And then—rather audaciously, if you ask me—in a song with a lot of lines, the one repeated most often is “You make it hard.” She makes it hard? Fact is, buddy, if she felt comfortable opening up to you she might be leaning on you instead of a licensed professional. Ideally both would be available to her. But you’ve demonstrated that you are not receptive, so what choice does she have?

The lyric has a lot of love in it, in fairness, even if with an air of ‘let’s try to stay together for the sake of the history.’ I just think narrator-Stills is taking the easy way out and complaining when he hasn’t exhausted all avenues that could lead him to understand his partner’s point of view. If he really cares for her, that is, as he claims to. The last thing she needs when she is struggling is to be with someone who not only doesn’t understand her but is losing interest in investing the effort. Heck, maybe going to a session of his own would bring him to the light.

It’s an early and important blueprint for songwriting that includes mental and emotional wellbeing in analyses of relationships. At the same time, it emphasizes how far we have to go—after all, we first have to normalize the idea of therapy if we hope to make those services universally accessible. To filter it through the recent Twitter trend “men will literally [insert verb here] instead of going to therapy,” we’re looking at “men will literally write a seven-minute pop song instead of going to therapy.” And how beneficial is that in the end?

Not that I’m about to stop listening to it. It’s so dang pretty. I was singing it one day around the house when I was probably thirteen, and my mom joined in for a few bars before pausing to compliment my taste in music. Once it gets Mom’s approval, it stays in rotation FOREVER.

Image: the single, September 1969

We’re in Urinetown

In which I’m filled with symbolism and things like that

It’s the oldest story:

Masses are oppressed

Faces, clothes, and bladders all distressed

Rich folks get the good life

Poor folks get the woe

In the end it’s nothing you don’t know

: “Too Much Exposition”

For nearly a week now—beginning, with eerie prescience, shortly before domestic terrorists attempted a coup on the U.S. Capitol building—I’ve been attentively playing the soundtrack of the 2001 Broadway musical Urinetown, whose creative melodies and comical asides satirize our economic systems under a not-entirely-inconceivable premise. It’s relevant enough because of what a plausible mask-era production it could make. It’s more relevant because at present, with public health and political affairs in the state they’re in, my home country seems to be drawing closer than ever to the titular metaphor.

As we gain more and more of a perspective on the pandemic and the changes it’s imposed upon our lives (particularly the policing of what we wear and how we behave), I have tried to diagnose the special brand of misery that has swept the United States, a supposedly advanced nation with a host of really basic dysfunctions. My friends, family, and curated Twitter have documented a totally unique experience of hell and a totally unique hope to go along with it. Meditating on this documentation and why it feels familiar, all at once I realize that it reminds me of a show about literal hope—and heavy policing. That what I’m witnessing is both Urinetown the musical and Urinetown the location.

The plot, for those unfamiliar, follows a community impoverished by a devastating water shortage and by the resulting corporate privatization of public toilets (known as ‘amenities’). Essentially, everyone has to pay to pee. The most disenfranchised of the townspeople rally behind a young idealist, Bobby Strong, after he leverages his job at a local amenity to stage an uprising. Bobby faces a conflict of interest in the form of Hope Cladwell, daughter of the big corporation’s head honcho, which leads to a kidnapping and a standoff and other events necessary to a proper revolution. And all the while they are haunted by the spectre of “Urinetown,” the universal and mysterious punishment for citizens who pee freely and illegally. (“Did you hear the news? They carted old so-and-so off to Urinetown the other day.” “Is that so? What’d he do?” “Oh, such-and-such, I hear.”)

It’s kept from being a classic Robin Hood social-justice morality tale by two factors: the rebellion really isn’t very well organized; and the ruling establishment, while draconian, does in fact provide for the people by conscientiously managing the water supply. In any event, the action is set up and guided by Officer Lockstock, resident Sheriff of Nottingham, who has at least made his peace with brutalizing offenders and sending them to Urinetown even if he may not actively enjoy it. His partner on the beat, in case you hadn’t guessed it, is Officer Barrel—the names are pretty symbolic, if by ‘symbolic’ we mean blatantly obvious.

In a more innocent time I listed the opening number among my favorites. It introduces Lockstock and his narrative counterpart, an irreverent street urchin called Little Sally, as thoroughly self-aware characters in a show which they can tell is not going to be happy. But just because it isn’t happy doesn’t mean it isn’t fun…and the score arguably only gets better. Various styles of theatrical number are parodied, from the love duet (“Follow Your Heart”) to the angry-mob anthem (“Look at the Sky”) to the quote-unquote victorious finale (“I See a River”). And, like all good parody, they’re fine examples of those styles in their own right. There are equally excellent numbers which I think are meant to be taken at face value: the gospel-inspired “Run, Freedom, Run”; the How-to-Succeed-esque “Mr. Cladwell”; the jazzy, ensemble-based “Snuff That Girl”; the character- and scene-establishing “Cop Song.” You could easily leave a performance humming any of these tunes.

The overture, too, is first-rate. I’d forgotten what a model it is until this most recent listen. Clocking in at 1:13, it sets the mood with a choppy tempo and discordant melody, switching between major and minor modes, letting us know we’re in for a couple hours of bittersweetness and tension. It’s an independent composition—its musical ideas never resurface, nor is it a medley of the subsequent ideas—and yet it is unmistakably representative of the show’s personality. (I love the overture to West Side Story for the exact opposite reason: it gives us a taste of so many melodies which have since become classics, and once the orchestra reaches the “Tonight” section I know they’ve hit their stride and start to get really excited.) It asserts its point and then makes way for the story.

Not to mention you’d be hard pressed to find a musical theatre score which showcases the clarinet more superbly; it’s flooring how much love composer Mark Hollmann lavishes on the woodwinds.

Wait just a minute, why have I gone off about the music? Well, if you think about it, the soundtrack to 2020 was undeniably strong. Good music doesn’t stop us getting where we’re going. Sometimes it simply highlights it.

This is a work of folk horror, as charming as it is chilling, as winking as it is wicked. (Like Midsommar, only way funnier and way better.) It makes you laugh even in the face of the grim truths it presents about your world—as Lockstock retorts to Little Sally’s criticisms, “Don’t you think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?” Even first-time offenders of the peeing regulations get Urinetown: the authorities famously take no prisoners. Which would mean, if we were to apply that principle to our own mask mandate, that the U.S. population would be reduced by half. It’s a discussion of how much/little difference individual choice makes in a society preoccupied with surviving. And yet the bureaucrats sit at the top of this society, not only surviving but thriving.

The original Broadway production rang almost too true to its time, more so than the cast and crew could have imagined while preparing it. That is to say it opened nine days after the attacks on the World Trade Center, and what was already a dark comedy became, well, a really dark comedy. Think about the immense contextual implications of a line like

What is Urinetown?

Urinetown is here

It’s the town wherever people learn to live in fear

Likewise, the art released since last March has been lent a new resonance by the atmosphere—Fiona Apple’s record, for example, was made largely in her home featuring many household surfaces as instruments, long before we were ever instructed to stay indoors. These artistic statements bear the mark of the environments that receive them; they become even more meaningful than they were on merit alone.

So what if it’s distasteful content, or an ugly title? It’s no uglier than the situation we’re faced with now. And at least they’re not squabbling over toilet paper—I’ve reason to believe that would get you Urinetown as well.

Dedicated to Celeste and Christa, whose respective productions made me a fan in the first place.

Image: original Broadway cast


In which I play the Cecilian Defense


I suspect I was always one nudge away from playing chess.

Growing up I might have had the makings of an enthusiast if I hadn’t devoted almost all my energies to literary pursuits. Or if I hadn’t been so troublesome at board games, a jealous player and a sore loser. Besides, whatever I chanced to learn about the game and its attendant environment was decidedly off-putting. Competitive chess seemed like an insular world full of…not very nice people. Through no fault of their own necessarily, but the trend is there. (Bobby Fischer was a noted misogynist.)

Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit and its Netflix incarnation, which I consumed in that order, seem largely to subscribe to this atmosphere. In a way, Beth Harmon is made for such a world. Orphaned at eight, she is quick to strategize, frank and open only when it suits her—hence her conscription of Mr. Shaibel, the orphanage janitor, to teach her the fundamentals of chess. She advocates for herself in a way that befits her situation, briskly and ruthlessly, asking questions and challenging authority until she has everything she needs to go after what she wants. This practice serves her incredibly well in her craft and also expedites her downfall.

Normally I’m wary of men writing women, so I suppose the fact that I regularly forgot that the author was male is a good sign. (Both Tevis and Nate Hawthorne did a pretty good job, and they’re the only ones who come to mind.) But then my experience of the book was filtered through a female voice on Audible; I felt the narrative firmly in a woman’s control. My impressions of certain characters were also influenced by the reader’s choices—for instance, she lent Alma Wheatley an accent that the actress in the series lacked, which highlighted the decisions (even the assumptions) I made about the character completely unconsciously. Always remember that the human voice is an instrument of power.

The book reads like a meticulous step-by-step thought process. Beth approaches her goals, from winning a match to scoring extra tranquilizers, with the same steady method and the same unbound desire behind it. This blind forge ahead, letting the reader know no more than she knows, makes for a narrative which often entranced me. The series brings that thought process to life with arresting visuals; I liked watching Beth tear open the canopy on her bed for a better mental picture of the board on her ceiling. And the small details are just as revealing, like the hotel room scene where Beth and her mother drink beer together for the first time, their legs crossed identically, foreshadowing a perilous life cycle. It won’t be long before Alma is gone, and by then Beth is on a self-destructive path.

In both the book and the series, I appreciated Alma’s nuance and depth. She is an active participant in her adoptive daughter’s story; she commits to her maternal role, doing a significant part to help Beth along to success (saddling her with emotional baggage, too, but hey, parents). She pursues independence; she has a fling with Manuel in Mexico City; she plays the piano, and is eventually able to accept the praise of listeners. It made me realize how many Orphan Stories default to neglectful, abusive, or just plain absent adults. Mr. Alton Wheatley fits that stereotype, showing little regard for anyone’s welfare but his own, and it would be too easy for Alma to check out after he abandons her. But she subverts our expectations and determines to change her life; by investing in Beth, she invests in herself. Not to mention she gets a sex life, which we hardly ever see for middle-aged women. Take that, Dickens!

As Beth’s circle widens, other likable folk enter her orbit. The Russian boy Girev wants to know all about drive-in movies. Viewers see Benny Watts as an amusing, intriguing Lone Ranger type; readers know him as meeker-looking, though certainly no less capable of blowing up at her when she asks him to join her in Moscow. And then there’s my bid for the greatest character—Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jo-leeeeeene!—with whom Beth’s relationship is much more complicated in the novel than in the series. One day at the orphanage Beth calls her, to her face, a word we don’t say anymore. This exchange comes on the heels of a sexual encounter Jolene tries to initiate while Beth lies awake immersed in her ceiling game. They are, respectively, thirteen and nine.

Jolene backs off when Beth rejects her, steering clear of assault. But in light of Beth’s own encounters later on, I would classify the scene as queer-baiting: leading us to believe queerness will be a plot point or source of self-actualization for the protagonist, then never bringing that idea to fruition and making her by all appearances heterosexual. What’s more, the experience affects Beth’s future perceptions—sex consistently disappoints her, whether with Harry Beltik or Benny or anyone else. There is no ‘redeeming’ moment, as in the series when she is with Benny in New York and gasps, “That’s what it’s supposed to feel like!”

Perhaps all that was a bit too real for Netflix. Too little glamour, too much grit.

Anyway, these personalities collectively softened me toward Beth and induced me to feel for her in a way I probably would not have otherwise. I found her too calculating at times, especially in the novel—now I will drink, now I will have sex, now I will fly in a plane—narrowing her itemized list in accordance with how she thinks a human life ought to be spent. Her maturing did strike me as more organic onscreen than on the page, for what it’s worth.

I recognized a bit of myself in her, which could explain my wariness. While I can’t remember having played a single full game of chess, I can remember sharing Beth’s ambition to be the youngest, sharpest, fastest in the room. In the series, when she crosses paths with Townes in Las Vegas, he tells her she has outgrown ‘prodigy’ status, an observation which in the novel is reserved for her own inner monologue. This only adds to the pressure. The ambition, and accompanying paranoia, is as self-sustaining as it is corrupting: the longer you stay at the top of your field, the farther you’ll go to maintain your post, and the more distorted your worldview becomes.

Over the course of the narrative, including at the end, I wished to see Beth truly love something or someone. The novel’s third-person narrator remarks during her fateful match with world champion Vasily Borgov that the only thing she is certain that she loves is “a win.” Having journeyed with her, I understand the attachment. But I feel I have yet to see her truly happy. Even winning at chess she takes with the detachment and cool composure that she brings to playing it. And the hunger, always the hunger. Each win spurs her on to a bigger, better, more prestigious win.

Either that, or I wanted to see her lose to Borgov. Face up to her own shortcomings—including the permanent repercussions of her addictions—then ready herself for a comeback, like Scarlett O’Hara scheming to win back Rhett Butler.

Now, you jaded readers know as well as this jaded writer does that life provides few proper resolutions. I don’t claim that the story should end with one. Since she begins with herself and chess, though, I hoped Beth would finish with something more than…herself and chess. Maybe it’s all she needs. Maybe her telephone teamwork with Benny and the guys, brief reunion with Jolene, and frenmity (??) with Borgov are enough for her. Obviously she plans to vie for the title in two years’ time. If she’s satisfied, well, far be it from me to begrudge a fictional character her solitary success.

One final note: had it been up to me, my instinct would have been to call it The Sicilian Defense, given Beth’s long-standing affinity for the move. But I can see how the author arrived at his title.

Image: from E3, “Doubled Pawns,” during a classic erotic setup—a photo shoot, courtesy of Townes—that goes wrong