Month: June 2018

Somebody (Rory Kramer Vision)

1. You Should’ve Known Better

It is difficult to feel sympathy for people who are rich and famous. This is not entirely bad; the gross imbalance of wealth and power in our society is the cause of our greatest problems and will remain so until the current social order is entirely restructured — a process that will be further delayed if we choose to emphasize the well-being of powerful people.

If we become too attached to the image of powerful people as ordinary human beings with problems similar to our own, we run the risk of excusing them their many transgressions in a way that can easily morph into hero-worship. For an example of this phenomenon, just take a look at any of the people who follow tech mogul/idiot savant/billionaire union-buster Elon Musk on Twitter, and how they rise up to his defense whenever his character is questioned.

All this is not to say there is no value in the act of empathizing with powerful people. Going back to the roots of dramatic storytelling in Greek tragedy, the audience was expected to sympathize with a great person, a figure of immense stature, who is brought low by an all-too-human flaw.

There are many reasons why we might be compelled to sympathize with the people who rule us — the connection between Elon Musk stans and the innate human need to believe that our caretakers are without flaw is probably deserving of more attention that I can give it here — but the most basic one is that in many ways, a powerful person’s life is not unlike our own. They have strengths and weaknesses and they experience conflicts, but because their actions carry greater weight, their lives have the potential for larger, more exciting conflict — all the better to engage the audience and demonstrate the themes of the story. To draw a very rough connection, it’s the reason why people find a battle between Batman and Superman more exciting than a debate about the nature of power and the correct application of justice, or even a similar story played out between two average, non-powerful men.

In theory, anyway.

Besides all that, there are practical concerns: if we deny ourselves the ability to empathize with people just because they’re rich and famous, we are categorically eliminating the work of any artist who has written about themselves after experiencing success. Everything Bruce Springsteen wrote about the struggle of working-class Americans after 1973 is no longer meaningful. Or Bob Dylan, if that’s more your speed. Anything that Stephen King wrote where the main character is a famous writer? All of that’s gone, too, including The Shining. Same goes for any millionaire Wesleyan graduates who write musicals with obvious self-insert main characters rapping about how they’re young, scrappy and/or hungry.

And the artist doesn’t have to be a national best-seller for this to apply; nearly any band successful enough to release an album and tour behind it, or a writer successful enough to have a book published and advertised, or an artist who has an entire room in a major gallery devoted to their work — any of these people has already reached a level of success most of us will never know. This doesn’t excuse the sort of laziness or creative solipsism that can convince an artist that it’s a good idea to write something like Lunar Park or “Hotel California”. But if the art is good enough to engender empathy and make us feel a connection with the creator, it doesn’t matter how much money they have.

2. I Don’t Really Like Anybody

Rick & Morty is a good show with an extremely unpleasant fan base. This is an uncontroversial claim that could apply to probably 99% of all intellectual properties, yet it still has the potential to alienate a significant portion of the people reading this or at least raise several questions about the tastes of the person making it. This is unfortunate, but not entirely unwarranted.

Like any piece of fiction marketed toward young white men, Rick & Morty has collected within its fandom a number of garden-variety misogynists and minor-league hate mongers. A brief glance at any of the largest Rick & Morty fan pages on Facebook will net you a wide array of bigoted, unpleasant comments and attempts at humor.

The widely held image of Rick & Morty fans as a group of unpleasant and entitled man-children was solidified in the wake of McDonald’s brief resurrection of the Szechuan chicken nugget sauce referenced in the show’s third season. This well-intentioned promotional stunt lead to an embarrassingly impassioned outcry from fans of the show when it was discovered that not enough sauce had been supplied to participating McDonald’s locations. The immature and disruptive behavior on display that day was an embarrassment not only to anyone who had ever enjoyed Rick & Morty, but to anyone with even a modicum of self-awareness. But even before the events of October 7th, 2017, there was already a pervasive sense that Rick & Morty fans were condescending faux-intellectuals who confused the show’s “edgy” humor for philosophical insight — there was a meme all about it, and everything.

It would be wrong to say the show’s content has no connection to the unpalatable portions of its fan base; any time you depict a nihilistic asshole as the badass, ultra-capable center of the universe, you run the risk of glamorizing them, even if your intent was the opposite (see also: Fight Club). But Rick & Morty is better than its reputation as chum for the MRA crowd suggests. It has a unique comedic voice and is endlessly clever in its utilization and subversion of classic science fiction tropes — and, yes, there is an episode where the main character turns himself into a pickle, but it’s really a lot more entertaining than you might think if your only point of reference is the most obnoxious person in your college dorm shouting “I’m Pickle Rick!” at all hours of the night.

Even though Rick & Morty’s main virtue is an abundance of wit, the show occasionally demonstrates ambitions beyond merely being clever and reaches for genuine pathos. In what is probably the show’s greatest single moment, Morty’s sister, Summer, has just learned something that causes her to question her place in the universe. When Morty’s attempts to calm her down fail initially, he reveals that her actual brother is dead and that he, the Morty we have followed throughout the entire show, is actually from a parallel universe.

This is surprising for the audience because it confirms a significant piece of continuity within a show that, until this point, seemed to play fast and loose with the idea of it — but it’s affecting emotionally because it allows Summer to put her existential crisis into perspective. Being faced with this example of the underlying chaos and nonsense at the heart of the universe doesn’t allow her to realize her place in the world, but what it does do is better: through realizing that she has no place in the universe, Summer is able to take ownership of her life, put aside the looming questions of fate and purpose, and simply enjoy herself.

A theoretical ‘good fan’ of Rick & Morty might take from this a lesson that would ease their anxiety and allow them a bit of peace in a world that can often be painful and confusing. It’s unfortunate that many fans have instead taken from the show the lesson that it’s cool to be a mean genius who lives a life removed from consequence, but it’s not exactly surprising.

3. The Only Thing That I Can’t Afford

The Chainsmokers recently released a second music video for their single “Somebody”, directed by their friend and frequent collaborator Rory Kramer. The main portion of the video is a lo-fi travelogue similar to the one Kramer created for “Roses”, interspersed with quotations that, to be frank, read like they came straight off of somebody’s Pinterest vision board.

At the end of the video, once the song has finished playing, Kramer settles on a single shot of Andrew Taggart as he discusses the song’s underlying theme.

Being able to discern what’s real and what’s not in a world that is seemingly… everything seems to be real, but… it’s tough to discern what is and what isn’t.

I don’t feel like I’ve lost myself thanks to the people I’ve surrounded myself in, but I’m very conscious of the fact… losing yourself is a relative term, I guess, because you have a preconceived notion of what losing yourself means but it could happen in a completely different way than you see coming.

And I think trying to keep perspective on everything, and, you know, the relative unimportance of your existence, is kind of comforting. So, yeah. I try to think about that stuff.

Watch Rick and Morty, it really helps.

While Taggart speaks, a large portion of “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann appears on-screen, which makes sense aesthetically — how else to end a video full of devotional affirmations than with a deep in the source of all self-help texts — but seems somewhat at odds with what Taggart is actually saying, particularly the line, “You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”

Andrew Taggart lives the kind of life most of us can only imagine. The benefits of his lifestyle are numerous and should not be discounted, but the drawbacks are worthy of consideration, as well. It’s not hard to imagine Taggart relating to Ehrmann’s description of life as primarily being “noise and haste”, considering that he is contractually obligated to fly around the world and play loud music for aggressively inebriated crowds. A famous life is a life of privilege, but it’s also, as Ehrmann says, a life of “fatigue and loneliness.”

And yet, the sentiment Taggart expresses in the video has less in common with Ehrmann’s suggestion to be “at peace with God” than with Rick & Morty’s insistence that you be at peace with what is, essentially, the absence of God. In referencing Rick & Morty while invoking the idea of finding comfort in the relative unimportance of your existence, Taggart is talking about finding peace through a sort of gentle nihilism. He has adapted the philosophical implications of insignificance to not only allow him freedom from the ever-present pressures of his unique life, but to also incorporate the necessity of treating your friends well and holding on to your own moral code.

Andrew Taggart is a rich white man who earns obscene amounts of money playing dance music, but at least he can appreciate the content of his favorite show in a way that enriches his life. At least he knows how to be a good fan. And even if the things he sings about in “Somebody” seem irrelevant to the majority of his listeners on a surface level, at least there is something in his music that can, potentially, add meaning to their lives.

And as for the bad fan? The solipsistic narcissist who only believes in his own version of truth? That leeches off the people around him and pursues his own personal ends under the guise of righteousness? The person who watches Rick & Morty and dreams of being cool and smart enough to fly around the galaxy having crazy adventures and not caring who he he hurts?

Well, the less said about him, the better.

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On Youth

The Chainsmokers are closely tied to the concept of youth. The most obvious reason for this is also the most depressing: these are the guys that made “#SELFIE,” and “#SELFIE” is about taking pictures of yourself, which is, apparently, something that only young people do. This in itself is enough to cement the connection in the mind of any hack culture writer, but the band’s association with youth runs much deeper than that.

The Chainsmokers, at least in theory, make music that falls under the banner of EDM (Electronic Dance Music). EDM is about chasing a temporary high; it’s the music of day-long festivals and all-night parties and it focuses on visceral excitement as opposed to depth. Rightly or wrongly, these are things that most people associate with being young. Beyond that, however, the idea of being young is central to the lyrical identity of the band and features as a recurring concept within their music — and their take on it is a lot darker than you might expect.

“Closer” remains, with one aforementioned exception, the song most people associate with the Chainsmokers, and it seems, on a surface level, to glorify the experience of being young — the refrain, “we ain’t never getting older” is certainly not a thing that anyone over the age of thirty would ever say, at least not out loud. But if the characters in the song are still within the realm of the young, then they’re right on the precipice of leaving it behind; they’re looking back on a time where they were more carefree and unafraid to pursue what they wanted. While the song as a whole is more about nostalgia than it is about actually being young, that focus on nostalgia implicitly defines youth as a time worthy of being looked back upon fondly.

Though lacking in the lyrical depth of “Closer,” “Last Day Alive” does attempt to paint a picture of what it is to be young. This is accomplished through an unceasing barrage of insipid lyrics about the magic of youth that would be more at home on a dorm-room wall than in a song. The blame for that falls at least partly on featured vocalists and credited co-writers Florida Georgia Line, whose clumsy hands can be felt all over lyrics such as “Now or never/It’s now or never,” “Twisted up in adolescence… feel alive and dangerous,” and the axiomatic line, “the night is young and we are young.” Not poetry, by any means — hell, even Nate Ruess would give these lyrics another pass — but it clearly communicates an idea: youth is a dramatic and confusing but ultimately an exciting period, where life-altering events of great importance can happen any time.

But a closer reading of both those songs reveals darker undercurrents. While the verses seem to celebrate youth, the chorus of “Last Day Alive” works as both a rallying cry and a warning. “Run into the bright lights most nights/Now or never/Always and forever, the last day alive.” Divorced from the high-energy music that accompanies them, these lyrics seem to depict an unending cycle of empty hedonism and depression. The idea of living without regrets, even for a single night, certainly has its appeal, but what sordid situation would drive a person to pursue that way of life every night? It might be empowering to, as Tim McGraw would say, live like you were dying, but what are the physical and emotional consequences of actually living each day like you won’t see tomorrow? There’s a name for that kind of philosophy: it’s called nihilism.

“Closer,” for all its nostalgia, takes a far from romanticized view of its characters. Not only are they both miserable and poor, there’s no suggestion that their reunion will alleviate their suffering or restore even a bit of their youthful grandeur. This song is not about the rekindling of a lost love, it’s about an all-caps BAD IDEA casual hook-up between two lost souls. Honesty, the two characters in this song don’t even seem to like each other all that much. One gets the impression that they feel almost compelled to have sex with one another, either because of their undeniable sexual chemistry or an unhealthy attachment to the past. Possibly both.

“Paris” is the closest the Chainsmokers have actually come to making a song about the power of youth, with its lyrics about youthful defiance paired with a sort of musical pseudo-glamor. But even at their most anthemic, the Chainsmokers can’t help but let darkness creep into every corner of their music.

The first sentiment we hear from either of the song’s doomed lovers is a pained combination of substance abuse and fatalism. “If I could take this in a shot right now/I don’t think that we could work this out” does not exactly fit within the theme of Love Conquers All. It seems to suggest that once this illicit vacation has ended, both parties and the love they share will be crushed by reality.  The couple in “Paris” are only together because they’re hiding from some set of ill-defined consequences and they’re struggling even to hold on to what little happiness they’ve found.

The song’s refrain. “If we go down then we go down together,” initially reads as defiance in the face of adversity, but Taggart’s subdued vocal style and the downbeat instrumentation make the fall from grace seems almost pre-ordained. The only sliver of hope lies at the end of the chorus: “let’s show them we are better,” a sworn oath to go down fighting that does little to inspire. Failure is inevitable. The best these two people can hope for is to fail in a manner that demonstrates character and proves that they’ve been underestimated for the entirety of their brief lives. But don’t hold your breath.

Perhaps the key to unravelling this theme lies in the appropriately named “Young,” an album track (and mildly successful single) from Memories… Do Not Open. “Young” almost entirely eschews any EDM stylings, aside from a brief burst of synth after the chorus that sounds more like lip-service to the idea of the Chainsmokers as a band you can dance to. “Young” is a plaintive semi-ballad sung mainly over an acoustic guitar, with lyrics that catalogue the numerous miseries in the lives of two young lovers.

Darker even than “Paris,” “Young” offers almost no hope and absolutely no suggestion that all of this pain and struggle is anywhere near worth it. Everything these two people do leads to dysfunction and/or destruction. They fight constantly and they have to sneak around just to see each other, all the while hoping that their love will carry them through to better times — but even this feels perfunctory: “maybe we can go from this” is hardly a grand romantic statement. But even that small bit of hope is snatched away by the end of the song.

I’m calling you up, you tell me it’s over
You say what you want
But it’s hard when you’re young

This final refrain efficiently captures the frustration and longing that comes with youth. Even if your intentions are good and your feelings are genuine, it’s not always enough to tame the confusion and pain that churn ceaselessly within you. The song’s ultimate moral, “It’s hard when you’re young,” is, perhaps, a bit simplistic, but it’s also honest in the way only a very simple statement can be, and it’s certainly backed up by the rest of the lyrics.

In the song’s most striking image, the narrator crashes his partner’s car and then engages in a late-night shouting match with their father that almost turns violent. Who can look at this pathetic, dismal state of affairs and say that young love is beautiful? Who can say that being young is anything but hard?