Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Michael Jackson

All this to prove we cared. Why is there then
No more to tell? We turned to other things.
I haven't any memory—have you?—
Of ever coming to the place again ...
from The Exposed Nest by Robert Frost

Nine years ago today, I was in Riviere-du-Loup on my way to New Brunswick for my mother's funeral. My mother and I had not had good relations. I had stopped for the night and had missed the news about Michael Jackson that, I presume, had broken overnight. 

I knew something had happened as soon as I hit the top of the stairs on my way down to breakfast that morning but didn't know what. I had a feeling much like you get when you walk in on a tense conversation without knowing what it's about. Our unconscious brain is always scanning the environment and mine must have picked up significant behaviours in my fellow guests.

I hadn't thought about Michael Jackson in years at the time of his death. He hadn't any good music in the last 27 years of his life. Indeed, except for two CDs, Off the Wall and Thriller, Jackson's output was pretty thin for his entire career. It's a touchy point with Jackson's fans, but both of those records were produced by Quincy Jones.

The problem is not that Jackson wasn't talented. He was phenomenally talented. But, like Nadia Comăneci, he wasn't a fully developed human being at the time of his greatest fame. He and Madonna are both about about four months older than me and Comăneci a little more than two years younger. The four of us grew up, or, in Jackson's case didn't grow up, together. The two women, whatever we might say of particular moral choices they have made, are fully developed human beings. Jackson never was. You could, and many have, treat him as a victim to be pitied. I know I wouldn't wish his life on anyone.

Would I let him off the hook? I don't know. I think the kindest thing we can do is simply to forget him. He should be no more than a footnote in Quincy Jones' life story.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Summer Man (4): Souvenir

This is another episode I haven't watched since the first time. Looking at again, the reason is pretty obvious to me. This is a very anti-male episode. Don is in it as a guy things happen to. He has little agency.

A big part of the problem is the Conrad Hilton subplot. It was an interesting idea. Don, in a time of uncertainty for the company, uncharacteristically makes himself beholden to a powerful client. The problem is that, having opened the door, the show never went through it.

Consider the start of the subplot, Conrad meets Don at a country club. He takes a liking to Don but doesn't tell him who he is. And then he calls and instantly goes into this pattern of implausibly demanding immense amounts and giving nothing in return. The show gives us nothing. We get no sense of the struggles Don goes through dealing with this nor of how Conrad became so incredibly successful. He's just an irritant on Don's life ... and ours.

And then there is Betty. She is supposed to have studied anthropology at a serious university and now we find out she speaks Italian. How exactly did she learn this in the first place and how did she keep it up all these years? Do the people behind the show have any notion what it takes to learn and keep up a second language?

And why is Betty so unconvincingly sexual? Was this a deliberate decision on the part of the show's creators or is January Jones just not capable of it? If the first, again, the show opens the door and then doesn't go through it.I f the latter ... well, it's sad but not surprising—the world is full of women who are incredibly sexy so long as they don't actually do or say anything.

What we do see is that Betty is already planning her exit. In a dialogue with Sally, we discover that Betty thinks that a kiss is when you first really get to know someone. In one sense, that fits her character perfectly. Another thing that fits with the possibility that Betty's failure to be sexual is a deliberate choice is that no one falls in love with Betty; they all fall in love with an illusion. Henry merely repeats what Don has already done. Meanwhile, we get these odd glimpses of an implausibly educated Betty along with other glimpses into a very plausible Machiavellian Betty.  She says at one point, "When you don't have real power, you have to delay things." The problem is that the show doesn't do much with either. And how do you reconcile the Machiavellian Betty with the ditzy victim Betty.

Is there anything to take away from this awful episode? My wife has a helpful classification: "She/he is one of those people whom things happen to." Listen to people as they tell you about themselves. There are some people who describe themselves as driven by what happens to them. You might be tempted to feel pity for such people. That is why, in fact, they talk about themselves that way—it's all a bid for attention. Don't give it to them. Be polite and then manœuver your way away from them.  Otherwise you might end up becoming like them yourself.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Summer Man (3) "... their objectivity intensifies Steely Dan's natural nastiness"

That's Robert Christgau reviewing Steely Dan's 1976 album The Royal Scam. It hit me, as I read it, that I quite like their nastiness.

Christgau has something of a love-hate relationship with the band. If you look up his reviews at the link the quote in the headers comes from, you'll notice that the marks he assigns the music steadily decline over the years. He gives their first four records straight As and the last two Bs. As their music becomes more polished, he thinks less of them. That's the exact opposite of the way the band's biggest fans see things. Christgau believes in a special kind of nonsense that attributes "authenticity" to rough, unpolished music. He is far from alone in this.

In a sense, it was inevitable that fans of 1960s rock and roll would think that way. The first artists to mix rock and roll music with folk music chords and sensibilities had the market all to themselves from 1964 until 1967. It was inevitable, however, that other people would figure the trick out and it wasn't long before smooth and polished professionals started making records just like those produced by the big sixties artists only with much better musicianship.

There are all sorts of places I could go with this but most of them would be pointless boomer navel gazing. The exception is something else important about the band that Christgau correctly identifies even though he doesn't like it. He writes of their "'60s worldview (meaning early '60s worldview)". He was writing about a Donald Fagen solo record when he said that but it applies to the duo as well; Fagen was always the only adult in the room.

Which brings me to the Mad Men episode "My Old Kentucky Home".  I picked this episode because iTunes tells me it is the episode I haven't rewatched the longest time. This is possibly the absolute nadir for the show. It's dishonesty is staggering. I've written about what's wrong with the episode before. Is there anything right about it?

The two interesting interactions in the episode are the ones between Don and the man whom we will later find out is Conrad Hilton and the one between Don and Roger.
“Most Nice Guys believe that by repressing the darker side of their masculine energy they will win the approval of women. This seems logical considering the anti-male climate that has permeated our culture since the 1960s. […] As result, they often lose their sexual assertiveness, competitiveness, creativity, ego, thirst for experience, boisterousness, exhibitionism, and power. Go watch little boys on the playground and you will see these qualities. I am convinced they are worth keeping.” Robert Glover in No More Mr. Nice Guy 
Both men come across as weak.  Hilton can't even make his own drink. Roger is beholden to Jane. A lot is made of the similarity between Roger's decision to leave his wife for his secretary Jane and Don's later decision to marry his secretary Megan. And there are similarities. But there are also differences and they are important. Here are two I think worth focusing on.
  1. Roger leaves Mona to marry Jane whereas Don has already been divorced by Betty.
  2. Roger and Don both are attracted to their new partner because she has some quality their first wife lacked. In Roger's case Mona was no longer young and interested in sex. In Don's case, Megan was not neurotic.
A lot of people wanted Don to settle down with Faye Miller but when Don asks Faye to deal with Sally, she is helpless. Megan is good with the children, Don is a father. Furthermore, he was married to Betty and had to deal with her neurotic, self-centered interactions with their children. Faye has other, positive qualities but this one is a deal breaker.

You might, and I suspect a lot of people did, dismiss that as simple sexism, as an expectation that women should be good with children. But Don has children. He also has a past. He's seen Betty in action and his life experience tells him that the kind of helplessness that Faye and Betty show in a crisis is the marker for a bad partner. And he's not wrong about that.  The problem is that the mere absence of a particular fault does not guarantee the existence of other positive qualities.

What of Roger? Is lack of interest in sex a good enough reason to leave your wife? I tend to think not. I think both Roger and Betty should have tried to save their marriages. But even if we allowed that it were a good enough reason, why does he pick Jane?  He could have had Joan? The difference between the women is ultimately one of class; Jane had been to college.

Do both men make bad choices? Well, yes, in the sense that both marriages fail. Could Don have foreseen the problem? Yes. He should have paid a lot more attention to Megan's crazy family. THere is a vulgar expression in male circles, "Don't stick your dick into crazy." The point being, don't ever think, "It's just sex I want so the fact that she is unstable won't matter." The reason why this is a bad strategy is that it's never just about sex. A similar logic applies to women (and men) and their families. You are never entering into a relationship with just an individual, their entire family dynamic comes along with them . And when that family is crazy ...

Megan has a chance to fit into Don's life and she blows it. Beginning with the surprise party that begins season five to her foolish abandonment of the advertising world, which she has proven to be quite good at, for acting, which is a stupid child's dream and for which she demonstrates no special talent, Megan's failure is her own alone. But!!!! it's important to note that failure is triggered by her father and his crazy notions of following her dream, as we find out in "At the Codfish Ball".

A lot of Steely Dan's natural nastiness is a willingness to be critical of pieties about women. It's driven by bitter realizations that come out of bad relationships. That is a good thing.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

A new Victorian era

Bari Weiss, writing in the New York Times on the decision of the Miss America pageant to eliminate the bathing suit competition:
"Our culture hasn’t stopped objectifying women. We — men and women both — are just getting better at pretending it’s not happening."
That's how the prudishness we condemn as "Victorian" works. Everyone keeps doing what we've always been doing only we pretend we're not. We pretend not because there is a potentially huge penalty for letting on that you are. That penalty is not for objectifying women but for making everyone else feel uneasy.

What's wrong with living like a fictional character?

Ann Althouse has had a couple of interesting posts up the last few days about people who were so inspired by Sex and the City that they tried to have the life. She frames this as "living like a fictional character". I think someone could reasonably accuse me of sometimes promoting living like a fictional character in writing about Mad Men Brideshead Revisited and the novels of Jane Austen. What's my response?

The first thing I'd note is that the people (some of them men) who sought to live Carrie's life as depicted in Sex and the City were inspired more by the life than the character. Carrie gets lots of sex and romance and, while she doesn't have much money, she gets to do a lot of things that cost a lot of money in New York City. How exactly she manages that is not entirely clear although her willingness to have sex with men who will pick up the tab has something to do with it.

And that raises an issue that is worth discussing. Carrie Bradshaw trades sex for what she wants. She likes sex and would probably do it anyway but it's part of the deal. You might be tempted to dismiss her on those grounds but I don't think that's fair. Jane Austen is far less explicit about it but all her heroines are offering sex as part of the deal. One of her characters is named "Fanny Price" and it's interesting to speculate whether Austen made the pun intentionally (in British English, "fanny" carries the same connotations as "pussy" does in North American English) but only a willfully blind reader could miss that whom one has sex with and under what conditions one has this sex is a central issue for Jane Austen's characters.

Someone could be attracted to Don Draper or Charles Ryder because they want the life rather than because they want to acquire the sort of moral character these men have. Both have money and get lots of sex and romantic adventure. Both also, like Carrie Bradshaw, pursue marriage although, and this is very important, we don't see their actually getting it as essential to their personal development the way we do with Carrie.

Althouse remarks, 'I got to that article via Instapundit who seems to accept Allison's blaming "Sex and the City" for the fact that Allison's career of being a Carrie type eventually got played out.' Glen Reynolds and I, both men, see something Althouse doesn't here. Are we right or is Althouse?

In any case, it seems pretty clear that seeking the life is eminently mockable as Althouse claims. Oddly enough, this isn't because you can't have it. Most people don't get to live the life but it is possible for those who are good looking and intelligent. An ex-girlfriend of mine who is roughly Carrie's contemporary lived a rough approximation of it with the singular difference that the guy she ultimately married isn't fabulously wealthy. The first Althouse post was in response to an article by a woman named Julia Allison who said she had lived the life but that it was a lie. The funny thing, for me, is that it does not seem to have been a lie to me when I read the article. She got all the things that Carrie got. Except Mr. Big that is. Here are two facts about Julia for your consideration.
  1. The first sentence of her Wikipedia profile with added emphasis on one word: "Julia Allison (born Julia Allison Baugher on February 28, 1981) is a former journalist, television commentator, public speaker and BRAVO star."
  2. If you do the math, Julia Allison is 37 years old.
In real life, the physical attractiveness that makes such a life possible for some women depreciates steadily after age 25 no matter how carefully it is managed while the wealth that makes the men attractive to them often does appreciate if carefully managed.

Years ago I read a study that had been done of adolescent conversation patterns. There was something that girls tended to do a lot more than boys, although boys did it sometimes. That something was to gauge what was the best behaviour by observing the way your friends react to stories you tell about what others have done. Fifteen-year old Cindy tells her friends that another girl she knows texted a nude picture of herself to a boy. The other girl can be real, someone she made up or a real girl about whom she has made stuff up. Whether her friends approve or disapprove will determine whether Cindy would consider doing likewise.

When you get right down to it, that's how every episode of Sex and the City works. You have Carrie who is attempting to live what the show's creators, and a lot of women of my generation, believed to be a life that balances feminism and femininity or, to put it in virtue ethics language: who tries to be a) a good woman and b) good at being a woman. To help us gauge her success, she tells stories about her three friends. On the show's terms, success is to be a feminist and still get lots of good sex, glamour, romance and, ultimately, a happy marriage. And the contrasting characters? Miranda is feminist but is reserved both sexually and romantically. Charlotte and Samantha both err in being post-feminist. In addition, Charlotte is sexually reserved while Samantha is romantically reserved. The dramatic tension turned on the fact that the show's fans all wanted to be Carrie but were scared of actually turning out to be a Miranda, a Charlotte or a Samantha.

Like all good fiction, character is what counts. All the women pursue sex and romance and get a lot of both. We judge them on the character they develop from those experiences more than the individual choices they make. That is as it should be.

My judgments? I've met Carries, Mirandas, Charlottes and Samanthas in my life. To be blunt, the one I'd be most interested in having a friendship or relationship with is Charlotte. I think Charlotte and Miranda would both make good bosses or coworkers while Carrie would be incompetent and untrustworthy and Samantha would be manipulative and untrustworthy. That said, as noted above, I once was in a serious relationship with a Carrie. I think you could marry a Samantha and manage happiness although you could never trust her. You could easily manage a happy marriage with a Miranda; the potential difficulty would not be trusting her so much as living up to her standards. In the end I married a Charlotte and there was nothing accidental about that. Long before Sex and the City debuted I had decided what I sort of person I wanted to marry and I found her, something that still seems miraculous to me. I'm not alone in my preferences. Charlotte is far and away the most attractive character for all the men I have ever discussed the show with. If there is a central lie about Sex and the City it is that the show never gives Charlotte much of a chance for happiness while my experience is that the women most likely to be happy in life are Charlottes. (And I'd say that the chances for happiness following her are, in descending order, Miranda, Samantha, Carrie.) But ... so what? If a woman really wants to be more of Samantha or a Carrie or, to put it another way, if she thinks those lives are morally superior to Charlotte's life, she will make her own choice.

Let's go back to Don Draper and Charles Ryder for a moment. As noted above, both are unmarried at the end of the stories they feature in. In addition, neither has done a lot to make himself marriageable. Our notion of what makes a satisfactory story arc for a man doesn't require marriage at the end of the rainbow. The makers of Sex and the City seemed to think that Carrie's story did require that. We might object, and a lot of people did, but none of us has made successful TV shows and/or movies. Is there as much of a market for female heroines whose story arcs are indifferent to marriage as there is for male heroes? You can probably guess my answer but, again, so what? Your answer is the one that should matter to you.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Summer Man (2)

“People tell you who they are, but we ignore it, because we want them to be who we want them to be.”

“The Summer Man” is an episode I expect I’m going to need to revisit a time or 20 before I decide how I ultimately feel about some of its stylistic departures from the “Mad Men” norm – not just Don’s film noir voiceover narration from his sobriety journal entries, but other moments like the use of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on the soundtrack in mid-episode, or the camera showing Don’s world suddenly feeling very far away after he has a drink in the office. 
Okay, let's do that.  We'll start with "Satisfaction". If you take sixties mythology seriously, rock and roll and especially a song like "Satisfaction" was rebellious music running against the mainstream culture. And yet this episode begins with someone in the New York Athletic Club, a bastion of the establishment, listening to the song on a transistor radio.

I think that's both wrong and right. I suspect it's wrong because I doubt anyone brought a transistor radio into the locker room at the New York Athletic Club in 1965. It wouldn't have mattered what you were listening to, it wasn't done. In polite society, no one would submit others to their musical choices like that. On the other hand, I suspect it's right in the sense that men who went to the New York Athletic Club probably listened to the song on the radio, more likely the car radio than a transistor radio. Why am I so sure of this? Because everyone listened to Satisfaction in the summer of 1965. It was on the charts all summer long and almost everyone listened to the same top forty radio in those days.

That is worth lingering on. There was a common culture in those days. There was a big split brewing under the surface that would really hit home in 1968 but in 1965 it was still intact.

Looking around, I see that most of the commentary on Satisfaction focuses on two things: the sexual content and the anti-commercialism. Not much mentioned is that phrases to the effect of "I can't be satisfied" traces back to a number of blues songs, one of which would have been very familiar to Jagger and Richards.

This isn't a complaint but a selling point. That he he can't be satisfied is a challenge and a (sexual) promise. That is a long way from the smug superiority of 1950s liberalism and the whiny victim olympics of post-1960s liberalism. And that is pretty much what you get from Mick Jagger's lyrics, 1940s blues swagger mixed with anti-commercial folk music attitude that sounds like straight out of a Pete Seeger song. Like a lot of brilliant ideas, it seems ridiculously simple in retrospect. But it wasn't simple. The proof being that no one else had done it before. 

And that brings me to what I consider the central question about Mad Men. Scott Adams has suggested that the Trump era is characterized be a tendency to see two different movies on the same screen. I'm increasingly convinced that Mad Men anticipated that. There were two Don Drapers. One was the one the creators seem to have set about consciously creating and the other was the one a lot of fans of the show actually saw. There was something unintentional about him. 

By "unintentional", I mean that he sprang out of the way the ingredients that made up his character were assembled rather than out of what the creators planned. 

The conventional view of Draper is driven by what Paul Ricoeur called the hermeneutics of suspicion:
I liked the idea of Don writing a diary. What I don’t like so much is having Don read to us from the diary, in a voiceover. For starters, the device undercuts one of Mad Men’s greatest strengths, which is its use of irony and understatement to show how characters word and actions often belie their real thoughts and meaning.
On this view, the real Don Draper is always someone less impressive than the false and flattering account he gives of himself. The first thing to note about this is what a trivial observation it is. Is there any one whom that is not sometimes true of. The second, more important thing to notice, is that Don is a guy who doesn't talk about himself. And it's not surprising that he doesn't because bad things happen to him almost every time he does.

That's the movie TV show half the population watched or, at least, it's the show a lot of critics watched. In this version, the surface meaning covers another, less flattering account. Well, less flattering to the people being watched; it's immensely flattering to the clever people using their secret decoder rings to interpret "what's really going on".

The other movie is an esoteric one. It too has a hidden meaning but it's a hidden meaning that has to be concealed because it would be dangerous to admit to liking this message. It's a TV show that appealed to men in an era when being a man was to be the subject of suspicion. At the centre of all this is a man. A man of action. People who dislike him say, "a deeply flawed man", as if there was any other kind.

Final note, I said above that the anti-commercial attitude in Satisfaction sounds like it comes out of a Pete Seeger song. Take a closer look at the verse the show episode uses:
When I'm watchin' my TV
And that man comes on to tell me
How white my shirts can be
But he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke
The same cigarrettes as me ...
If you remember 1960s ads, you'll know how big a part the need to fit in played: the reason you needed a white shirt was so you wouldn't stand out. You needed a well-manicured lawn for the same reason. The song doesn't object to commercialism so much as it objects to conformism. It's a declaration of ... well, a declaration of what? The natural tendency would be to end that with "independence" but that's not where the song goes next.
I can't get no, oh no no no
Hey hey hey, that's what I say
I can't get no satisfaction
I can't get no girl reaction
Now there is a concept: "girl reaction". Is that what he sings or is it "girly action"? Either way, that ain't independence.