Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Media Rants and Madison

Finally got around to trying the Google Art Selfie. I don't see the resemblance, but the app matched me up with James Madison. Given that the 4th POTUS was the primary author of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, I guess I'll take it!

Saturday, August 17, 2019

New Media Rants Video: On Woodstock as Authentic Rock

Below is a video version of  On Woodstock and Authentic Rock and Roll.  Many thanks to my Producer/Director John Ardbeg. If you like the video, be sure to like and share.

MEDIA RANTS with TONY PALMERI from john ardbeg on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

New Media Rants Video

John Ardbeg is a video producer in Oshkosh, WI. He took an interest in the Media Rants blog and asked if I would like to make some videos. Our plan is to make sure videos to accompany specific columns. Below is a video summarizing the post "Is Radical Love Possible in the United States?

TONY S MEDIA RANTS 2ND SHOW from john ardbeg on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

On Woodstock and Authentic Rock-and-Roll

Note: For a short video summary of this post, click here. 

August of 2019 presents us with the 50th anniversary of the most famous Hippiepalooza of all time, the Woodstock concert. As with any historical event, memories of it shift and change based not on the discovery of any new evidence about what "actually happened," but more simply on whatever are the needs of the present. 
It's easy to reduce Woodstock and the Hippy Era in general to a series of cliches, but it's more complicated than that. 
So if we're in a culture war era like the 1980s and 1990s, we grapple with memories of Woodstock as an icon of hedonism; was it just a raucous party that moved drug use and sexual promiscuity into the mainstream? Or was it the pinnacle of a youth movement that for more than a decade had been striving to break free from the stifling conformity of the post-World War II Eisenhower years? 

In the 21st century, as we witness what's left of democracy in the United States devolve further every day into a pathetic battle between cowardly and/or opportunistic Trumpian trolls vs. paranoid pundits (The Russians! The Russians!), Woodstock gets remembered in some circles as a rare time of unified resistance against authoritarian rule. We find it fascinating that intoxicated hippies were somehow able to confront the toxicity of the Nixon/Agnew war machine with a politics rooted in peace, love, and nonviolence. 
Perhaps without even realizing it, Woodstock attendees were experiencing a rare case of authentic rock-and-roll.
Memorializing the music of Woodstock is typically a less contentious exercise, perhaps because of our tendency to separate art and politics. Even a toadying Republican Congressman like former Rep. Paul Ryan can claim to like Rage Against the Machine. In three days over 30 acts performed at the festival. Even if you're a culture warrior opposed to the behavioral excesses of the attendees, you still have to acknowledge that the event left us with some incredible music performed under what most artists would call less than ideal conditions. 

For me, the 1969 Woodstock festival is a rare of example of authentic rock-and-roll. Authentic rock and roll requires a distinct mix of musical AND nonmusical elements. I want to spend the remainder of this rant explaining what that means and why it matters. 

Woodstock as Authentic Rock and Roll 

Rock-and-roll has always been a little bit like love in the sense that everyone kind of has a sense of what it is, but has difficulty defining it. And when we try to define rock, the same thing happens as when we try to define love: we fall into hackneyed cliches (e.g. "love means caring about someone more than you care about yourself," "love is the most powerful drug on earth," etc.) that don't really tell us much and that we probably learned from the lyrics of a top-40 song. 

Dictionaries typically define rock-and-roll in musical terms. Take Merriam-Webster's definition for example: "popular music usually played on electronically amplified instruments and characterized by a persistent heavily accented beat, repetition of simple phrases, and often country, folk, and blues elements."

The problem with musical definitions of rock-and-roll is that they are not that much different from musical definitions of electric blues and rhythm & blues. As the great Muddy Waters put it, "The blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll." 

Because rock can't be defined precisely in musical terms, critics have found significance in the nonmusical features of the art form. The late Bo Diddley--one of the true rock innovators--after a career of being marginalized on radio even while his riffs were being plagiarized by popular artists, told Rolling Stone Magazine that rock-and-roll was really about race: 

When I did the Ed Sullivan show, they gave me a check for 750 bucks. CBS cat say, "You gotta sign it, but you gotta give me the check back. This is a formality." I says, "Uh... Formality — who's that?" He says, "We get you on the show, but you gotta kick the check back." I said, "What kind of crap is this?" I done signed my name to that sucker, you understand? Who was gonna pay taxes on that? But all right, I gave him the check back. Then a few years later I picked up a book and read where they paid Elvis Presley, for his first appearances on Ed Sullivan, $50,000 — and I got sick.

That told me what was happenin' — what rock and roll really was, and rhythm & blues. Rhythm & blues was for me — "ripoff and bullshit." It was to keep me from gettin' my hands on any money, and anybody else that looked like Bo Diddley — meanin' black cats. Elvis himself didn't have anything to do with this — he was only takin' whatever he could get comin' up. . .So rock and roll was for the Caucasians, and R & B was for the black cats. And I was black, so I got hung up in the R & B, which.... the money wasn't the same. If you're R & B, you don't make the big money. If you're rock and roll, you make all the money, or your price is a lot different, one way or another. It was basically all the same music, but if you could get a white boy to record it, certain stations would play it. "We'd break it if you get a white boy to do it" — some radio-station people told record companies this.

Today it's impossible to debate the existence of the kind of racism Bo Diddley lived. But I'm sure even Bo would have agreed that the racist music industry executives could not have anticipated the social and cultural impact of bringing R & B inspired music to the masses. The pure chaos of early rock planted the seeds of rebellion among youth in the "calm" 1950s and created opportunities for genuine integration and multiculturalism. The gritty and grinding beats of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and early rockabilly stars (Elvis, Johnny Cash, Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis especially) united youth in euphoric jubilation unlike anything their parents ever experienced. Speaking before a Congressional committee in 1958, Frank Sinatra called rock-and-roll "the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear." Social Critic Vance Packard, author of the (even now) highly regarded Hidden Persuaders, in 1958 told a Senate committee that rock stirred "the animal instinct in modern teenagers." (Sinatra and Packard quotes both cited in David Szatmary's Rockin' in Time.). 

The establishment, racist backlash against rock was largely successful and led to the marginalization of African-American artists. Meanwhile Dick Clark attempted to rebrand rock-and-roll as a family friendly, teeny-bopper phenomenon featuring clean-cut kids that just wanted to have some innocent fun. 

I maintain that authentic rock-and-roll always has some kind of connection to those chaotic early days. Rock-and-roll is an anarchic, Africa-inspired, anti-establishment art form perpetually co-opted by the forces of tradition.

Rock and Roll In One Simple Table. On the Left are Authentic Rock-and-Roll Values. On the Right are the Values of the Forces of Tradition:

Africa (Black)
Europe (White)

By anarchic, I mean that authentic rock-and-roll breaks down hierarchies. It puts the child of the Fortune 500 exec and the child of the blue collar laborer literally on the same dance floor, helping each to embrace their basic equality and thus lay the groundwork for dismantling the mindless top-down authority most people are trained to conceive of as natural. The anarchic spirit, which is a feature of authentic rock-and-roll, motivates all infected by it to identity their fate with the fate of the masses. To put it in more contemporary terms, the anarchic spirit is about recognizing one's connection to the 99 percent. 

By Africa-inspired, I mean that the beats of rock-and-roll come from a distinct place. As noted by the late Ray Manzarek, the keyboard player for the classic rock band The Doors, "If there was no black man there would be no rock and roll. The beat, the rhythms of Africa are what created rock and roll and jazz." When I teach The Rhetoric of Rock-and-Roll in a university setting, almost all the students (including students of color) are fascinated to learn about the African roots of rock-and-roll. Most come into the class believing that hip hop is Black and rock is White, a belief system that is a testament to how successfully the forces of "tradition" were (and are) at whitewashing rock-and-roll. 

By anti-establishment, I mean that authentic rock-and-roll stands in open defiance of conformity to establishment values. We all chuckle when rock stars protest the use of their music by politicians or commercial interests that they disagree with. 
In 2015 then Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin entered a speaking event accompanied by the tune "I'm Shipping Off To Boston" by indi-rockers Dropkick Murphys. The boys in the band tweeted their displeasure to the guv. 

I stop chuckling when rockers have no problem with their music being used by establishment forces that they agree with. To put rock-and-roll in the service of any establishment force, no matter how "noble" that force might be, is to water down rock and rob it of its potential to be the space for imaging new ways of existence. 
Authentic rock-and-roll, in both its musical AND nonmusical features, overturns the middle-class value system that most of us get indoctrinated into at a very young age
Woodstock represents one of the rare times when rock's anarchic, Africa-inspired, anti-establishment features converged. For a fleeting moment it seemed possible that young people could imagine a world that was not racist, classist, status obsessed, or corporate. For me the most stunning performance and visual symbol of the event would have to be Santana's "Soul Sacrifice." The band's style and energy (Carlos Santana insists he was tripping on acid at the time), coupled with the crowd of non-musicians on stage and the absence of any signs of commercial logos and other forms of corporatism, makes that wordless performance a stunning illustration of anarchy, Africa-inspiration and anti-establishment values. When people ask me for an example of authentic rock-and-roll, I usually say "Santana's performance of Soul Sacrifice at Woodstock." 

Why Does Woodstock Matter? 

Contrary to mainstream media musings, youth activism today is as prominent as ever. Come visit me at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and I'll introduce you to young people who do not at all seem like the brain dead, phone-app obsessed losers caricatured in the commercial media. Is everyone an activist? Or even a majority? Of course not. But that's never been the case, even at the high point of the peace, women's lib, and civil rights movements of the 60s. 

What IS true, and this is unfortunate, is that youth activists (and really all activists regardless of their age) have come to accept the values of a "managerial" culture that often makes them spend (waste?) incredible amounts of time and energy trying to get institutional leaders to "do something" about whatever problems the activists have identified. On college campuses, administrators have figured out that they need to become "allies" with activists. The activists almost always walk away frustrated; they discover that even the most well-meaning administrator ultimately has to be concerned with the public image of the institution above all else. 

In 2015 independent scholar Fredrick deBoer wrote a provocative piece for the New York Times called Why We Should Fear University, Inc. that states the situation much better than I can: 

“I wish that committed student activists would recognize that the administrators who run their universities, no matter how convenient a recipient of their appeals, are not their friends. I want these bright, passionate students to remember that the best legacy of student activism lies in shaking up administrators, not in making appeals to them. At its worst, this tendency results in something like collusion between activists and administrators.” 

What's that got to do with authentic-rock-and roll and Woodstock? Well, I'll bet very few people went home from that festival wondering how they were going to spark top-down change. Instead, the more conscious among them probably realized they had just lived through an experience that was going to force the "leaders" to recognize youth as a force worth reckoning with. That is, they had experienced the power of authentic rock-and-roll. 

We need that power now, probably more than ever. 

P.S.  Carlos Santana's latest recording, "Africa Speaks," features the wonderful Spanish/African singer Buika. How appropriate he released this 50 years after Woodstock. 

Friday, July 26, 2019

Taibbi Brings Back Clown Car Coverage

The always insightful and acerbic Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone Magazine is probably the best political journalist working today. Well at least he's one of my favorites. Forever independent and fiercely truth telling, Taibbi's bullshit-detector skills make him a clear enemy of establishment politics and politicians. He's got that rare ability to bring humor to political discourse in a way that helps highlight the absurdities of mainstream hacks in government and media. 
In 2016 Matt Taibbi's "Clown Car" coverage chronicled the rise of Donald Trump with some caustic tales of campaign shenanigans. Taibbi's reviving the Clown Car to cover the Democratic Party primary

In 2016 Taibbi's "Inside the GOP Clown Car" coverage of the Republican primary season helped many of us stay sane as we watched a well known huckster and scumbag (initials DJT)  prevail in a field of candidates filled with nutcases, nitwits, and nincompoops. Anyone reading Taibbi's work throughout 2016 knew that Hillary's campaign was in trouble. Unfortunately the Democrats like the Republicans would rather marginalize the Taibbis of the world instead of learn from them. 

Good news for political junkies: Taibbi has brought back the Clown Car coverage, this time focusing on the Democratic Party candidates for president. The first piece is called "The Iowa Circus." Money quotes: 

*Traveling hundreds of miles across Iowa, passing cornfields and covered bridges, visiting quaint small town after quaint small town, listening to the stump speeches of Democrat after would-be Donald Trump-combating Democrat, only one thought comes to mind:
They’re gonna blow this again.
*The top Democrats’ best arguments for office are that they are not each other. Harris is rising in part because she’s not Biden; Warren, because she isn’t Bernie. Bernie’s best argument is the disfavor of the hated Democratic establishment. The Democratic establishment chose Biden because he was the Plan B last time and the party apparently hasn’t come up with anything better since. Nothing says “We’re out of ideas” quite like pulling a pushing-eighty ex-vice president off the bench to lead the most important race in the party’s history.
*The Democrats had years to come up with an answer to Trump that is fundamental, powerful, and new, solving the problem the elder George Bush once called “the vision thing.” What’s mostly been shown instead is more of the same. Literally more, as in three times the usual suspects. The sequel even Hollywood would never make is now showing in Iowa.
*. . . much of what has passed for the Democratic Party debate to date has involved what campaign commentators call “moments" . . . There was Klobuchar dunking on Inslee, Harris thrashing Biden over his past stance on school busing, former Housing Secretary Julián Castro walloping O’Rourke for not doing his “homework” on section 1325 of the immigration code, and O’Rourke providing an anti-moment of his own in an agonizing marathon effort at speaking Spanish in his introductory debate segment.
*The presence of human scratching post Biden atop the field has contributed to the not-undeserved impression that the party does not know what the hell it is doing. Biden has not only been battered by nearly all of his Democratic rivals, he’s also been drawn into flame wars with Trump, reanimating the 2016 pattern of TV networks giving Captain Orange masses of free airtime to flail rivals for sport and ratings.
*Biden’s early front-runner flubs are reminiscent of Jeb Bush’s $150 million failure to handle Trump tweets. There are many such parallels. Biden is Jeb. O’Rourke, running in what the Times calls the “younger face” lane, is Marco Rubio. Unseen Steve Bullock is unseen Jim Gilmore. Bill de Blasio is the same “Why is he running?” New Yorker George Pataki was. And this election’s version of John Kasich, the embittered realist barking, “What are we doing here?” from the literal edge of the debate stage, is former Maryland Rep. John Delaney.
*Reporters show up at events with anxious smiles on their faces, like parents looking for a child at a department store. Maybe this one? How about her, or him? This is an extension of a phenomenon that began in the second half of the last GOP primary, when the press tried lavishing compliments on the “real” candidates they hoped would stop Trump. The internet remains littered with the wreckage of these efforts, in headlines like “Signs of ‘Marco-mentum’ for Rubio in New Hampshire.”
CNN will host Democratic "debates" on July 30 and 31. I refer to these hyped media events as For Profit Scams. You can find my explanation here and here
Then as now, in their zeal to find someone, anyone, to beat Trump, the press is once again too focused on the candidates themselves, ignoring warning signs that are almost always sitting right there in front of them, in the crowds.
*Williamson belongs to a category of candidate you might call the Ignored. They’re candidates blown off by national political wizards who don’t believe, or don’t want to believe, they can win. How anyone can think this way after 2016 is mind-boggling.
The list includes Williamson, entrepreneur and Universal Basic Income proponent Andrew Yang, Hawaii congresswoman and regime-change opponent Tulsi Gabbard, and, most conspicuously, Bernie Sanders.
I think it's critical that Democrat party King and Queen Makers take seriously Taibbi's final paragraphs, but I know they won't: 
*Four years ago, the rank inadequacy of the Lindsey Grahams and Scott Walkers and Jeb Bushes who tumbled into the pastures of Iowa made great sport for snickering campaign journalists, myself included. We dubbed the field of governors, senators, and congressgoons who couldn’t beat a game-show host the “Clown Car,” and laughed at what many of us thought was the long-overdue collapse of the Republican Party. The joke turned out to be on us.
The GOP error was epic in scale. The Republicans sent twice the usual number of suspects into the buzz saw of a Throw the Bums Out movement they never understood, creating the comic pretext for the Clown Car: twice the canned quips, twice the empty promises, double the rage, frustration, and eye rolls.
Nobody will want to hear this, but Democrats are repeating the error. The sense of déjà vu is palpable. It might and should still work out, according to the polls. But a double catastrophe seems a lot less impossible than it did even a year ago. Lose to Donald Trump once, shame on the voters. Lose to him twice? It’s glue-factory time for the Democratic Party, and another black eye for America, which is fast turning its electoral system into a slapstick reality show.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Update: The 42 Gospels

Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history recently elected to the Hall of Fame, has faced criticism recently due to his support for President Trump. In 2014 I wrote a Media Rants column comparing Rivera's autobiography with Jackie Robinson's. The comparison was appropriate because baseball had retired Robinson's #42, and Rivera was the last player allowed to wear the number. 

Click this link to see the column. 

Monday, July 22, 2019

State of the State Columns

For those of you who may not know, in addition to Media Rants I also write "State of the State" for the Oshkosh Independent. Some recent columns include:

Grand Chute Chair Calls Out Corruption: About Town of Grand Chute Chair David Schowalter's tense exchange with Representative Mike Rohrkaste (R-55th Assembly District) over the "Dark Store Loophole." 
Grand Chute Town Board Chair David Schowalter called out the state legislature's corruption in a tense exchange with District 57 Assembly Representative Mike Rohrkaste
Stuck in the 8th Congressional District: About State Representative Amanda Stuck's (D-57th Assembly District) decision to challenge incumbent Republican Mike Gallager in the 8th Congressional District. 
State Rep Amanda Stuck is trying to make an argument that her life experience makes her especially suited to represent the 8th Congressional District. 
Budget Process Shows Why Partisan Gerrymandering Must End: About how hyper partisan gerrymandered legislative districts helped undermine the biennial budget process. 

In 2018 Democrats won all the major statewide offices. In the state assembly, because of extreme partisan gerrymandering, they gained no seats even though their share of the statewide vote was higher than the Republicans'
The Trouble With Tweeting: About the awful state of social media use among Wisconsin's elected officials.

A complete archive of my State of the State columns can be found here.