Thursday, August 16, 2018

Aretha without tears

Buying Aretha Franklin records is risky business. To be blunt, a lot of them are just horrible. Even buying only greatest hits collections is no guarantee for you can end up with a collection with two or three great songs and a whole lot of crap besides. Yeah, she was the "Queen of Soul" because she recorded some of the best soulful R&B ever recorded. What rarely gets mentioned is that she also produced a lot of dross. The ratio of her utterly forgettable songs to her really great songs is at least 10 to 1 and probably even worse than that.

You really only need one Aretha album and that is 1967's I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. If you want more, you can also buy a greatest hits compilation with "Baby, I Love You", "Natural Woman", "Chain of Fools", "I Say a Little Prayer", and "Think" on it. Better yet, buy the other singles you like as individual cuts. And that's it. I know, that sounds blasphemous but it's true. That's all that's worth owning in the entire Aretha Franklin catalogue.

And the issue is even touchier than that. Note the following claim from the Allmusic review of  I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You:
Much of the credit is due to producer Jerry Wexler, who finally unleashed the soulful intensity so long kept under wraps during her Columbia tenure; assembling a crack Muscle Shoals backing band along with an abundance of impeccable material, Wexler creates the ideal setting to allow Aretha to ascend to the throne of Queen of Soul, and she responds with the strongest performances of her career. 
Well, actually, No! All of the credit goes to Rick Hall of FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and his studio musicians, especially the rhythm section affectionately know as "The Swampers". The only credit Wexler deserves is for having the good sense to turn the project over to someone smarter than himself. And Wexler proved this beyond any doubt when he tried to reproduce the magic without Rick Hall on the next few Aretha records and failed miserably. With the help of The Swampers, whom he hired away from Hall, Wexler and produced a number of great songs (but no great albums) after that. And you can hear why if you listen to them; a song like "Think" succeeds because it imitates Hall's previous work.

And that's it. Things go steadily downhill from there.

Well, that's not quite it because there is the difficult question of what went wrong at FAME studios. Something happened but it's not quite clear what exactly it was. There was an ugly incident of a sexual/racist nature is all we know for certain. The most commonly repeated story is that one of the white musicians on the session made a play for Franklin right in front of her husband. Whatever it was, Franklin never returned.

(Was it all that incident? Or did Wexler or, more likely Franklin's husband Terry White's ego suffer when he realized that Hall was vastly more talented? I'd guess that was it.)

But that issue conceals a truth about "The Queen of Soul" that few want to acknowledge and  that is that she is one of a large number of musicians who had immense talent and no idea what to do with it. She needed the right collaborators working with her or else she couldn't do it. When working with Rick Hall, she was great. When not, she was mostly not great. For some people, the issue is further complicated by the fact that her greatest records were the ones where she collaborated with white southerners; indeed, a lot of the best soul and R&B music produced was the result of collaborations with white southerners. That kinda messes up the narrative for some people. When that happens, reasonable people toss the narrative.

(Aretha Franklin is not the only one. Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett and The Staples Singers produced their best music, by far, when working with Rick Hall and/or The Swampers.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

What you want

In the preceding post, I wrote,
A lot of things about life are depressing. But I'll tell you about something even more depressing: the lives of women who decided this was just a stupid and sexist social convention that was going to go away until they got to be older and decided they wanted a long-term partner they could settle down with.
Of course, a woman may not want marriage. And she shouldn't feel obliged to want it. That said, if you start telling people and, especially, if you start telling yourself, that marriage isn't important to you or that it isn't important to you "right now", you'd better be right! It's ridiculously easy to spend your twenties pursuing things that the culture around you tells you to pursue while putting off the things you really want.

32 years!

Science confirms what are supposed to be just "stereotypes" with staggering regularity. Elizabeth Bruch, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan has done a massive study of online dating behaviour and The Atlantic has an article about it.
She’s spent the past few years studying how people make decisions and pursue partners on online-dating sites, using exclusive data from the dating sites themselves. “There’s so much folk wisdom about dating and courtship, and very little scientific evidence,” she told me recently. “My research comes out of realizing that with these large-scale data sets, we can shed light on a lot of these old dating aphorisms.”
There is, as we've come to expect from modern journalism, a lot of CYA political correctness at the top of the article. The writer, a youngish guy named Robinson Meyer, uses what may be a particularly clever ploy in this regard. He starts off by telling us that the study confirms that there are dating leagues and some people are out of your league. He describes this as depressing. In other news, other people are richer than you. But, hey, maybe he really was disappointed to learn this plainly obvious fact.

Other not-terribly-surprising findings:

  1. “A defining feature of heterosexual online dating is that, in the vast majority of cases, it is men who establish the first contact—more than 80 percent of first messages are from men in our data set,”
  2. “women reply very selectively to the messages they receive from men—their average reply rate is less than 20 percent ..."
  3.  The key, Bruch said, is that “persistence pays off.” ... “Reply rates [to the average message] are between zero percent and 10 percent,” she told me. Her advice: People should note those extremely low reply rates and send out more greetings.
  4. Across the four cities and the thousands of users, consistent patterns around age, race, and education level emerge. White men and Asian women are consistently more desired than other users, while black women rank anomalously lower.
  5. In the study, men’s desirability peaks at age 50. But women’s desirability starts high at age 18 and falls throughout their lifespan. 
  6. Women’s prospects dim not only as they age, but as they achieve the highest level of education.
  7. Across all four cities, men tended to use less positive language when messaging more desirable women. They may have stumbled upon this strategy through trial and error because “in all four cities, men experience slightly lower reply rates when they write more positively worded messages.”
 A few comments.

I'll begin with  #5. Women's desirability peaks at age 18 while men's steadily rises until age 50. You have to read more than half way through the article to learn this. That's burying the lead grand style.

I can confirm that on the male side. I reached peak attractiveness in my forties. I was already married at the time and unwilling to take advantage of it but at no other time in my life were women so interested.

The flip side? Personally, I find most 18 year olds a little foolish but if desirability were the only thing that mattered, I'd go young, although not quite that young. I'm attracted to sexy women and I'm not going to apologize for that. I understand that many people will find this depressing. A lot of things about life are depressing. But I'll tell you about something even more depressing: the lives of women who decided this was just a stupid and sexist social convention that was going to go away until they got to be older and decided they wanted a long-term partner they could settle down with. Politically incorrect truth: If a woman wants a happy marriage, she should get busy looking for someone while she is still in her early-to-mid twenties.

As long as I'm being politically incorrect, if, as I say, the the choice of younger women reflects men selecting for sexual attractiveness, I'd bet good money that the choice of older men reflects women selecting for socioeconomic status.

Well, yeah! Men take the initiative. And the converse is true as well: women want men to take the initiative.

Women are selective. A woman is far more likely to reject a man than vice versa and a woman in a relationship is far more likely to leave. The corollary to the politically incorrect advice I gave regarding #5 above is, if you are a happily married man and you hope to remain that way, you;d damn well better keep earning it every year of your life.

That persistence pays off is probably surprising no one but there is a corollary which might not be so obvious: the key to happiness in this life is having a high tolerance for rejection. Get yourself a copy of Martin Seligman's Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life and get reading.

Not surprisingly, the article tries to explain this one away.
But “what we are seeing is overwhelmingly the effect of white preferences,” she cautioned. “This site is predominantly white, 70 percent white. If this was a site that was 20 percent white, we may see a totally different desirability hierarchy.”
Maybe. But I would bet not. Why? Because I suspect this has nothing to do with race. The popularity of white men is just another instance of women selecting for socioeconomic status. The popularity of Asian women is, and I know this will hurt some people's feelings, a reflection of the greater emphasis a significant number of Asian women put on femininity.

I was across the river in Gatineau yesterday and  was struck, as I often am when back in Quebec, at how much more effort women there put into being womanly. Book a flight from Ottawa or Toronto to Paris and you'll notice the same phenomenon. A flight to Madrid, same thing. Likewise Rome, Rio or Berlin. If you bring a culture that plays a high value on femininity into contact with our English-speaking, white culture in North America, which does not, and the women are going to pop out at you like Smarties in a bowl of oatmeal. You can get angry about that all you want, it won't change anything.

I don't think it's the education per se that is the problem but a number of other things education is a marker for. See the preceding paragraph for more.

(When I was in graduate school back in the 1980s, there was one woman who bucked the trend and dressed and behaved in a pointedly feminine way. Her female peers in the department did everything they could to tear her down. The viciousness of their attacks was scary to see.)

I know, I know, this sounds a lot like what the PUAs call "dissing". Worse, this study says it works!

There are very few more reliable ways to reassure a woman in her belief that she is out of your league than to gush over her. You don't have to diss her. But make her earn your attention. If she isn't willing to earn it, move on. See notes #2 and #3 above.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Women seem wicked ...

I was listening to a good Art of Charm podcast on connecting with people. Johnny Dzubak quoted a Doors lyric.
People are strange when you're a stranger
Faces look ugly when you're alone
It's a good point. Things look dark when you have to face a world where you don't have connections.

I immediately thought of the next couplet.
Women seem wicked when you're unwanted
Streets are uneven when you're down
A lot of misogyny comes from feeling unwanted.

The funny thing is that the judgment is not wrong. Women often are wicked for the simple reason that they are human beings and that is what human beings are. The facts don't change; our perspective changes. If you're secure in your social connections, including connections with women, you can be charitable when you discover some shameful thing a woman has done; you can see it as an ordinary human failing. When you're not secure in you social connections, when you feel alone and unwanted, you will see that very same action as proof of a woman's special wickedness.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Summer Man (6) the vexed yacht rock question

"Yacht Rock" is a great name for a genre of music. It's such a great name that you immediately want to be part of "the yacht rock scene" even though it's an imaginary genre. There is a problem though. The guys who came up with the name don't think Jimmy Buffett is yacht rock.
Lyons: We kept talking about the stories that we never got to tell, one of them being Footloose. And I hate Jimmy Buffett‘s music; I think it’s a soundtrack to date rape. I think it’s garbage music for people who have no interest in listening to anything good.

Ryznar: We portrayed parrotheads being brainwashed idiots. You kind of have to be if you’re into Jimmy Buffett. Or just want to be so tuned out of life, that like hey, whatever — kick back with flip flops, drink some margs, listen to some sweet Jimmy Buffett music and let him paint a rosy picture of a reality that does not exist.

Lyons: I always like that artists like Bertie Higgins, Rupert Holmes and Andy Kim have an authentic longing in their music. Buffett is a rich dude getting richer off of the lack of taste of the poor and stupid. He represents the lowest common denominator in music, even worse than country singers profiting off of 9/11. To summarize: I’m not really a fan.

Ryznar: You might be able to argue that Jimmy Buffett music is about escaping from a dark place, but there’s no soul in there. So we just wanted to make him an absolute idiot. Our good friend Vatche Panos, who is super funny, really hit a home run with that one.
Why is that a problem? It's their genre can't they can define it any way they want? Well, no. The problem is that words have meaning. The relevant word here is "yacht". If you found yourself forced the higher a skipper for a yacht that was going to sail through potentially dangerous waters and your only choices were the members of Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers, or Toto or Kenny Loggins, David Foster, Jay Graydon or Jimmy Buffett, Buffett is the one to choose.

And the yachting crowd in the 1970s and early 1980s knew this. I was there. Even before he became famous, sailors packed Buffett's live shows. Any list of "yacht rock" compiled by people who actually were yachtsmen and women in the late 1970s and early 1980s would have included Jimmy Buffett.

I've written about this before and the issue has long interested me. I wouldn't say it has troubled me. I just had the feeling that there was something interesting hiding in the subject. Last week, I realized what it was. Amy and I were staying with some cousins of hers on the east coast and we spent a fair amount of time driving between various yacht clubs I'd visited when I was a kid growing up on the east coast. As we drove, I had a playlist of Steely Dan playing. I like Steely Dan. I like Steely Dan a lot. But it was just wrong in that culture. It didn't fit.

Inspired by their success with Yacht Rock, the guys had a podcast called "Beyond Yacht Rock". I say "had a podcast" even thought it still gets updated now and then. They have given up on the notion of creating more imaginary genres though. The lightning only struck once. If you listen to it, though, you'll begin to catch a sense of what really drove the genre: loserdom. Because these guys are, losers.

Not from the outside. Any objective observer would describe them as successful. But they don't feel like winners to themselves. And being a loser is a recurrent theme in the music they call yacht rock: "What a Fool Believes", "Deacon Blues", "After the Love is Gone", "Human Nature". Steely Dan were all about losers even bore they started making "Yacht Rock": "Do it Again", "Don't Take me Alive", "Dirty Work".  Here is a nice summary of the issues:
Yacht rock themes usually reflect the ennui of the era; the end of relationships, futile, fleeting hookups with pretty young things, drugs and booze, nostalgia for the simple pleasures of the early ‘60s, and longing to leave it all behind and escape to someplace warm and exotic. The Fool is the protagonist of many of the songs.
And that is a very accurate account of how that era felt for many people. It's especially accurate for for nerdy guys who were clumsy with women and spent a lot of time alone in their rooms listening to music and imagining "a better world where the sort of music they like would get its due".

I put that last bit in scare quotes not just because this "better world" would, like all imagined worlds, be more of a dystopia. The other problem is that I don't think they really like this music as much as they believe they do. Why do I say that? Because it's music that they think will buy them the status they don't feel they have in real life.

Yacht club kids didn't think that way. And you can hate me for this if you want but I know because I was one of them. To be continued ...