Music and TV favorites, 2019 (Part 1): Got to be real

The President (such as he is) of the United States is a liar. It’s no wonder the music and TV that mattered most to me in 2019 was all about the search for what’s true and real. All of my most-played and most-pondered favorites featured some variation of authentic selves breaking free from suppression, performers grappling with the limits of persona and the soul-truths that can sometimes only be revealed through the act of striking a pose.

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(Courtesy Elektra Records)

The Highwomen: A seat at the table

The name is a pun on and a tribute to the Cash-Kristofferson-Haggard-Jennings Mount Rushmore of country supergroups. But The Highwomen — Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby — see their project as more of a collective than a supergroup. And that’s exactly what this debut record sounds like. Their group singing conveys a whole, a sense of sisterhood and community to which all are welcome and all belong. In a genre where women artists have to fight for airplay (a 2019 study showed that women artists comprised only 11.3 percent of the country radio airplay on 2018 year-end industry charts), “The Highwomen” feels as much like a movement as it does a musical happening.

The title track is a rewrite of Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman,” in which the male archetypes of rugged adventurers (outlaw, seafarer, dam builder, astronaut) are replaced by women protectors, activists and healers. The Salem witch, the migrant mother trying to cross the Southern border, the civil rights Freedom Rider (sung by Yola, an Americana/soul artist from the U.K.) are all portrayed as a threat to the patriarchal, misogynistic societies in which they live. In the migrant and Freedom Rider verses, the women are doubly persecuted for race as well as gender. Sung in unison, the final chorus — “and we’ll come back again and again and again and again and again” — conjures women as a resilient force through time, determined to right wrongs and speak truth in a world that underestimates and fears us. If that sounds corny, think of Christine Blasey Ford, Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill testifying before Congress at personal and professional risk. Highwomen, all.

The two other statement songs on “The Highwomen” are similarly lifted by the sisterly blend of the group’s voices. “Redesigning Women” is a sparky country-pop homage to the way Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Reba McEntire made “women’s lib” acceptable for their fans in past decades.The women in the song go to work, race home to breastfeed the baby, take on their families’ emotional burdens and drink a lot of wine. “How do we do it? /How do we do it? /Make it up as we go along,” goes the bridge. The message here is that there is no “right” way to be a woman, so we need to stop beating ourselves up trying to be perfect.

“Crowded Table” glows with a similar generosity. It’s a song of hope at a time when hope is defiance: “I want a house with a crowded table/And a place by the fire for everyone/Let us take on the world while we’re young and able/And bring us back together when the day is done.” The hearth and home imagery both calls to mind and undermines the traditional notion of “a woman’s place.” Women are doing most of the labor of resisting the Trump regime — working in groups, organizing protests, sitting at kitchen tables calling elected officials and writing postcards to voters. The “house” of “Crowded Table” is America. And while the song’s warm folk-rock vibe reminds me of “Our House,” by Crosby, Stills and Nash, it conjures no cozy retreat from the world. It welcomes the world in.

The smaller, more personal songs on “The Highwomen” pack an emotional wallop as well. “If She Ever Leaves Me” was written by Shires and her partner Jason Isbell (who plays on the record) for Carlile to sing. And Carlile’s vulnerable, full-hearted wobble on the declaration “I’ve loved her in secret/I’ve loved her out loud” tells you all you need to know about the cost of loving in secret and the liberation of loving who you’re meant to love.

One song that’s not on the record but should have been is The Highwomen’s version of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” (it’s on the soundtrack to the film “The Kitchen”). It’s a faithful cover, but with a crisper beat than the original. The song is an incantation, a curse ex-lovers level at one another. But when “The Chain” is liberated from the sexual merry-go-round that was the Mac and sung by four women joined together in righteous anger, it becomes something more dangerous and thrilling. As part of Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks’s crystal-vision sorcery was often misinterpreted as air-headedness by the male rock critic establishment. On “The Chain,” the Highwomen sound like a whole coven assembled to avenge Stevie Nicks and how she gave voice to the power of women’s love and rage. They are the daughters of the witch the male-driven music industry couldn’t burn.

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The category is “realness”: “Pose,” Lizzo and “Schitt’s Creek”

“If you feel like a girl, then you real like a girl,” Lizzo sings in “Like a Girl” from her unstoppable 2019 album “Cuz I Love You.” Her body positivity and self-actualization anthem “Juice” is the dance song of the year, but every track on the record slams, makes you move. And on the album’s other giant hit, “Truth Hurts,” she asks the question that’s been on a lot of people’s minds since the circus came to town on Election Day 2016: “Why men great till they gotta be great?”

Lizzo is the definition of exuberance, from her rich, sunny voice (reminiscent sometimes of Chaka Khan’s) to her boasts (“I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m a hundred per-cent that bitch“). Taking her stage cues from Queen Bey’s swagger, Lizzo commands you to respect her as she is, a self-made woman who has no time for your body-shaming. Lizzo is not too much, she is everything. Her odes to “self-partnering” like “Soulmate” (“They used to say to get a man you had to know how to look/They used to say to keep a man you had to know how to cook/But I’m solo in Soho, sippin’ Soju in Malibu/ It’s a me, myself kinda attitude”) alternate with songs reading unworthy men the riot act. “Cuz I Love You” could be titled “Cuz I Love Me,” a message she puts across in every performance, every glam shot, every pep talk about knowing your own worth. If it’s a pose, it’s a great and a joyous one, because it pulls her listeners into a place of celebration for the messy realness and the shining possibilities inside all of us.


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(The Rose family of “Schitt’s Creek”)

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Affluent jet-setting poseurs lose their fortune and are reduced to living in the hinterlands among their plaid-clad inferiors — that’s the premise of the Canadian sitcom “Schitt’s Creek.” It’s a seam that “Green Acres” and “Newhart” mined well (except that the urban sophisticates of those shows willingly relocated to small town USA in search of “real” folk). What “Schitt’s Creek” brings to the genre is a big-hearted view of humanity at a time when political tribes are actively avoiding each other. On “Schitt’s Creek,” the spoiled Rose family — video-store magnate Johnny Rose, his soap opera actress wife Moira and their pampered adult children Alexis and David — gradually develop humility and empathy as they discover their true selves.

Created by comedic treasure Eugene Levy (who plays Johnny) and his son Dan Levy (who plays David and is also a writer and producer on the show), “Schitt’s Creek” began life on Canada’s CBC and on the mid-tier cable network Pop in the U.S. It broke big when Netflix picked up existing seasons. I was slow to take notice, but once I did, I blasted through it with increasing astonishment and delight. It was my antidote to Twitter this year, and I wish I had had the will power to morsel out the 2019 season when it hit Netflix in October. But I didn’t, and now I have to wait for its sixth (and final season) to hit next year. That’s OK, it gives me more time to re-watch season five, which culminates in an amateur theater production of “Cabaret” for reasons unknown (but it totally works).

“Schitt’s Creek” is often burstingly funny. That magnificent, elegant clown, Catherine O’Hara has the role of a lifetime here and she slays it; her Moira is a bewigged, bedazzled fish out of water, clad in black-and-white haute couture and accentuating her lines in a bewildering speech pattern somewhere between pretentious thespian and Jiminy Glick. As for her longtime comedy partner Eugene Levy, I could write a thesis on his expressive eyebrows through the years, from “SCTV” to “Best in Show” to “Schitt’s Creek,” but for now, I’ll just say that his Johnny is a master class in comedic reacting as the optimist amid his family’s chaos.

What makes “Schitt’s Creek” perfect escapist viewing is it’s relentlessly positive depiction of people’s capacity for change; the longer the Roses stay in Schitt’s Creek — they bought the town as a joke when they were wealthy, and it’s their only remaining asset — the closer they become as a family. And as we get to know them and their neighbors, we’re constantly being surprised by every character’s slowly revealed strengths, kinks and aspirations, the depth of their emotional lives.

If this sounds treacly, it’s not. Every grandly sarcastic line from the mouth of bitchy fashionista David lands as invigoratingly as a cold dip after a hot sauna. And as Alexis, Annie Murphy has created an entire language out of variations on the exclamation, “Eww!” The most singular and wondrous thing about “Schitt’s Creek,” though, is its treatment of David’s queerness (Dan Levy is himself gay). Take the following exchange between Johnny and the town’s mayor, Roland Schitt (Chris Elliot). Roland is a passive-aggressive weirdo, but in keeping with the show’s theme that you should never assume you know what’s going on with people, he completely gets it:

Johnny: My son is pansexual.
Roland: Uh huh. I’ve heard of that. That’s, uh, that cookware fetish.
Johnny: No. No, no. He loves everyone. Men, women, women who become men, men who become women. I’m his father and I always wanted his life to be easy. But just… pick one gender and maybe everything would have been less confusing?
Roland: Well, you know, Johnny, when it comes to the heart, we can’t tell our kids who to love.

Near the end of season five, there’s a lovely episode where David’s adorably unflappable boyfriend Patrick (Noah Reid) comes out to his visiting parents. The parents are visibly uncomfortable and you’re waiting for the worst, but it turns out that they’re happy for him, just melancholy that Patrick kept his true self from them for so long. By design, there is no homophobia on “Schitt’s Creek.” This is Eugene and Dan Levy’s world, and we should all be so lucky to live in it.

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MORE SPOILERS!

FX’s “Pose,” the Ryan Murphy co-created drama series about ball culture and trans and gay life in New York City of the ’80s, set itself a daunting goal for its second season: Tell the story of how AIDS ravaged a generation of gay and trans people while President Ronald Reagan took no action. How do you document the terror, the demonization, the loss upon loss of those years without driving TV and streaming audiences away? Murphy, co-creator Steven Canale and writer-producers Janet Mock and Our Lady J did it by alternating the focus from the personal to the political, drawing parallels to the criminal indifference shown toward the lives (and deaths) of LGBT people by a Republican administration and its powerful religious allies, then and now.

Season two of “Pose” gave viewers a living history lesson of the plague years, from ACT UP die-ins to the terrors of living with the disease that (in those days) meant certain death. The show’s most beloved characters, House of Evangelista mother Blanca Evangelista (MJ Rodriguez) and drag ball emcee Pray Tell (Emmy winner Billy Porter), both developed full-blown AIDS during the course of the season, reacting with their usual resilience (Blanca) and anger (Pray). Yes, “Pose” was often difficult to watch this season without shedding tears. But, as Pray Tell is fond of saying, the older members of the community have to educate the youth. Here is a major TV series with a cast, producers and writers that is majority trans and gay (and majority black- and brown-skinned), exploring the fullness of LGBT lives at a time when the faction in power is doing everything it can to erase them from public life.

Some of the characters’ experiences were horrible: the murder of Candy Ferocity, an African American trans woman; the many characters’ backstories about being banished by homophobic and transphobic parents; Pray Tell’s bone-chilling AIDS-fever dream where he wanders through the hospital ward singing “The Man That Got Away.” But this was all necessary to make the essential point — “Pose” shows you what people will risk for the freedom to live an authentic life.

For all the heartache and sickness this season, “Pose” still gave us plenty of music, dance and ball-walking (a through-line astutely showed the attention Madonna’s “Vogue” brought to the ball community, and the debris after mainstream interest faded). And when the emotional highs came, they were soaring. Pray finally letting himself act on his attraction to a much younger dancer led to a long, skin-to-skin bedroom scene of pure ecstasy. And Rodriguez continues to infuse Blanca, the head and heart of her ball family, with poise, grit and an endless capacity for maternal love.

In an indelible scene from the season finale, Blanca turns up for the “Mother of the Year” ball competition still weak from AIDS-related pneumonia. From her wheelchair, she radiantly lip-synchs to Whitney Houston’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This land is our land too, the choice of music proclaims. Blanca’s House of Evangelista, her crowded table, her chosen family, is a vision of a welcoming, inclusive America that was just a dream in 1990. We’ve come so far in 30 years, the writers seem to be telling us, even as they invite us to consider the forces that threaten to drag us backwards to the time of outcasts and plagues.

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Coming in Part Two: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Prince

From the Vault: Morris Day and Prime-Time

Hey, who remembers that Prince’s Court Jester, Morris Day, once starred in his own NBC sitcom pilot? I didn’t, and I was one of the few TV critics who reviewed it when it ran as summer filler in 1988. Here’s a nugget from my clippings archive, currently under construction. Many artifacts to come. (Stretch photo to enlarge.)

From the vault: Bruce Springsteen on video

Is it me baby, or just a brilliant disguise?

With Bruce Springsteen’s “Western Stars” movie opening in theaters this weekend (I will see it if the Bay Area power outages permit), it got me thinking about a now-ancient VHS video anthology he released in 1989, comprising his MTV-age videos and clips from live performances at the 1979 “No Nukes” benefit and at Neil Young’s Bridge School benefit in 1986. In this anthology, you can see Springsteen’s early evolution as a performer in front of the camera and as a visual artist behind it. There’s a whole world of changes between his awkward dance steps on “Dancing in the Dark” and the stunning emotional nakedness of “Brilliant Disguise.” Here’s my review from the San Francisco Examiner in 1989. Expand image to read.

The birth of cool: Miami Vice, 35 years later

I can feel it comin’ in the air tonight, oh lord …

In the money scene of the premiere episode of NBC’s “Miami Vice,” Detectives Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) cruise the midnight streets of Miami in Crockett’s shiny black classic Ferrari on their way to a showdown with the drug dealer responsible for the death of Tubbs’ brother and Crockett’s partner. The scene is thick with portent, new partners Crockett and Tubbs warily eyeing each other. The wind blows through Crockett’s dark blond hair. Tubbs checks his gun. The scene keeps cutting to caressing shots of reflected streetlights breaking like waves off the Ferrari’s hood. In the background, Phil Collins’ atmospheric “In the Air Tonight” builds and builds. It’s the most erotic depiction of platonic buddies since Paul Newman and Robert Redford smoldered at each other in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. And then Collins hits the drum riff heard ’round the world and a pop cultural phenomena exploded.

I came of age as a TV critic with “Miami Vice”. A review of that September 16, 1984 premiere episode was one of the first pieces of TV criticism I wrote for the alt-weekly newspaper the Boston Phoenix:

“Not only is it easily the season’s best new show, it features some of the most sophisticated direction and editing and some of the most visually sensual, and downright gorgeous, photography ever seen on a network action series. And I’d bet NBC wouldn’t have let it see the light of prime time if rock video hadn’t already eased cryptic kinkiness and art-school flash into the mainstream. … [Michael] Mann and [Anthony] Yerkovich use rock-video style as a foot in the door that enables them to sneak in all the fancy film theories and techniques that used to be considered too outre for the average TV series — or rather, considered too good to waste on the average TV viewer. Miami Vice is the most groundbreaking prime-time show since Hill Street Blues, not just because it isn’t afraid to be different, but because it isn’t afraid to be brilliant.”

The series that was commissioned by then-NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff  with two words — “MTV cops” — became a standing Friday night obsession for its first couple of seasons. It influenced ’80s men’s fashions (linen blazers, pastel T shirts, no socks) and men’s grooming (stubble). It busted Phil Collins out as a solo artist and made Jan Hammer’s electronic instrumental theme song a radio hit. Musicians lined up to act in it: Willie Nelson, Little Richard, James Brown, Leonard Cohen, Suicidal Tendencies, Glenn Frey, Vanity, Sheena Easton. Phil Collins. Miles Freaking Davis. Anything “Vice”-related sold, even Don Johnson’s album “Heartbeat” (17 on the Billboard 200 album chart). Well, almost anything: Philip Michael Thomas’s album “Living the Book of My Life,” which was released before Johnson’s, failed to chart.

But the show’s contributions to television were hardly superficial or ephemeral. Reverberations of its seductive, shades-of-gray depictions of good guys and bad guys could be felt in cult-cool broadcast TV series that soon followed it, like NBC’s “Crime Story” and CBS’s “Wiseguy.” Its dark portrayal of governmental lies and malfeasance cleared a TV path for “The X-Files.” The grown-up storytelling and MTV flash of “Miami Vice” brought people who thought they were too smart and cool to watch TV back to the medium. In doing so, it was an important link in the chain that eventually brought us “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men,” “Deadwood” and “The Americans.”

And your humble critic was there to chronicle all of it, from the blazing first two seasons to the flame-out years when the ratings dropped and the threat of cancellation loomed. She even dutifully reported on Don Johnson’s post-Vice career (although now she can’t remember why).

And here I am, on the 35th anniversary of the show’s premiere, still marveling at how thoroughly “Miami Vice” defined its time, both pop culturally and politically, while proving to be so far ahead of it.  I continued covering “Vice” when I was TV critic for the San Francisco Examiner. Here’s the appreciation and eulogy I wrote for the series when it aired its May 21, 1989 finale, “Freefall.” (Click images to enlarge.) I wouldn’t change a word of it today.  The plot of the finale depicts Crockett and Tubbs uncovering the shadowy alliances between a lawless executive branch, scoundrels-for-hire and anti-democratic regimes in another part of the world. Only the fashions have changed.

(Reruns of “Miami Vice” can be streamed on NBC.com. They also air on the premium cable channel Encore/Starz. Thanks to Dan Brekke, for his help retrieving the Examiner piece.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2019

Hey, who wants to hear my voice?

For the first time ever, I said yes to a podcast interview. Jesse from Set Lusting Bruce, a Springsteen podcast, caught me in a sharing mood and we talked about how I came to be a Springsteen fan and lots of other stuff about my childhood and my career path and whether or not I think Mary gets in the car at the end of “Thunder Road.” If you’ve ever wondered about the mystery that is moi, here’s your chance. I don’t open up the Fortress of Solitude every day, you know.

Listen to my episode of Set Lusting Bruce here.

Aretha forever

©Atlantic Records

Let’s not speak of Aretha Franklin in the past tense. Let’s speak of her in eternals. The sun and the rain, the earth and the sky, love and faith, sorrow and perseverance. Aretha embodies all of those things and gives them voice, a rich, supple voice flowing with humanity. It’s among the two or three greatest voices popular music has ever known.

Aretha’s music is godly, lusty, turbulent, ecstatic, glistening. She spans musical styles and decades, while always remaining Aretha. She is the Queen of Soul, the reverend’s daughter, the woman who shows other women how to demand R-E-S-P-E-C-T, whose voice gave voice to torrential grief at Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral and soaring joy at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. She brought Obama to tears when she sang ‘A Natural Woman’ to its co-writer, Carole King, when the latter received the Kennedy Center Honor in 2015.  Of that performance, Obama told The New Yorker, “American history wells up when Aretha sings. That’s why, when she sits down at a piano and sings ‘A Natural Woman,’ she can move me to tears — the same way that Ray Charles’s version of  ‘America the Beautiful’ will always be in my view the most patriotic piece of music ever performed — because it captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation, transcendence.”

Aretha is the soul of black America, she is the soul of America, period. She is soul music, and the music of the soul. Aretha, simply, is. And will always be.

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Aretha is …

“Respect”.  From her 1967 album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, this is the song that changed everything. Aretha didn’t write it (Otis Redding did), but she wholly subverts it. A man reminding his lover, “I’m about to give you all my money … And all I’m asking, a little respect when I come home” is one thing. A woman singing the same lines, demanding “my propers” when she comes home from work, creates a thrilling new power shift. In the ‘60’s, Aretha’s “Respect” was adopted as an anthem of both the women’s rights and Civil Rights movements — intersectional feminism before the concept had a name. Aretha and her sisters Carolyn and Erma came up with the spelled-out repetition of the title and the “sock it to me” backing vocals. Listening to it now, more than fifty years later, it sounds more eruptive, uncompromising and triumphant than ever.

Amazing Grace. Aretha grew up a reverend’s daughter from Detroit (or “De-twah,” as she pronounced it, like the French), singing in her father’s church. She returned to her roots with this double gospel album recorded live at Los Angeles’s New Temple Baptist Missionary Church in 1972. Amazing Grace was the biggest-selling album of Aretha’s career. I wrote this about the album in 2012: “This is the greatest singing you will ever hear. Period. Aretha’s rich, glimmering melisma on “Precious Memories”, her spine-tingling screams of ecstasy on “Amazing Grace”, her roof-rattling testifying on “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” will take your breath away. Amazing Grace is the holiest record I own. And I say this as a secular Jew and an atheist. I don’t believe, but I am moved beyond words by the joy, the spiritual transcendence, of Sister Aretha’s voice lifted in praise. And that’s religion enough for me.”

 

“Nessun dorma”, Grammy Awards 1998. She stepped in for an ailing Pavarotti to sing the aria from Turandot with only minutes to prepare, singing it in the key that had been arranged for him. (This video keeps getting removed from You Tube, so act quickly.)

Young, Gifted and Black. Aretha’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, was a cohort of Dr. King; he also recorded a sermon entitled “The Meaning of Black Power.” And Aretha used her profile to further black pride and culture. A small report in a 1970 issue of Jet Magazine details how Aretha “stands ready” to pay Black Panther Angela Davis’s bond “whether it’s $100,000 or $250,000.” The piece quotes Aretha as saying, “Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up [for disturbing the peace in Detroit] and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. … I have the money; I got it from Black people — they’ve made me financially able to have it — and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.” (When the bond was set, Aretha was on an overseas tour and communications glitches prevented the transfer of the money.)

The chugging funk of “Rock Steady” and the misty, swirling R&B of “Day Dreaming” are two of my favorite Aretha-written songs. Both are from her Young, Gifted and Black album, released in 1972, the same period as Amazing Grace. Aretha in the early ’70s, with her natural hair and African dress, was a powerful contrast to the conservatively groomed young woman of her early career. The video below, a galloping performance of “Rock Steady,” comes from a 1971 episode of The Flip Wilson Show, and I’m including it because it validates a hazy memory from my youth. I remember watching Aretha on a variety show, maybe this one, with my mother, who offered a  stony dismissal of Aretha’s “crazy” hair and African garb. Watching Aretha on TV with my parents during this period was like sitting in a sauna of heated disapproval. Fast forward to President Obama’s 2008 inauguration, for which Aretha donned the quintessential church hat, festooned with a magnificent, oversized bow, to sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and instantly became the butt of white comedians’ jokes. Oh, and my mother couldn’t deal with that hat, at all.

The Interpreter. Aretha stands with Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald as the greatest interpreters of pop songs of the 20th Century. With her unerring ear for arrangement and melody, her precise knowledge of when to caress a word, when to draw out a syllable, how long to hold a beat or a cry, and when to just let her emotions go, everything she sang became an Aretha Franklin Song. She conveys a deep connection to the lyrics of some of the most surprising choices. When Aretha sings it, the God-Is-Dead high-mindedness of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” becomes a gospel sermon about faith as the antidote to loneliness in disconnected times. Her ecstatic “I Say a Little Prayer” is the definitive version, all exuberant, full-hearted passion; Dionne Warwick’s (lovely) original of the Bacharach-David classic sounds muted and distant in comparison. Aretha pours blood and soul into Simon and Garfunkel’s tepidly angelic “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and connects to Elton John’s “Border Song”  with every atom of her being.

Sisterhood. If you’re going to talk about the seam of female strength and solidarity that runs through Aretha’s greatest hits, you have to talk about her relationship to her backup singers on those records. This is what I wrote in a piece called “In Praise of Backup Singers”:

The backup singers on Aretha Franklin’s records aren’t musical accessories, they’re emotional necessities. When Aretha is sad, crying over the man that got away on “Ain’t No Way,” they’re crying with her (that’s Cissy Houston’s mournful soprano). When she’s giddy in love on “Chain of Fools,” they’re giddy too. When she’s giving that no-good man the business in “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” they’re standing right behind her, hands on hips. Aretha’s backing vocalists are more than her harmonizers, they’re her girlfriends, confessors and sisters — on many of her recordings, they’re her actual sisters, Carolyn and Erma Franklin. “I got a call the other day,” begins Aretha’s spoken intro to “Angel.” “It was my sister Carolyn saying, ‘Aretha, come by when you can. I’ve got something that I want to say …’ ”  “Angel” floats on Aretha’s soaring wails of loneliness, but it ends with a calming moment of sweet empathy from Carolyn and Erma: “He’ll be there, now don’t you worry/ Keep lookin’ and just keep cookin’,” and you can imagine them reaching across the kitchen table to take her hands and dry her tears. Aretha’s music is the sound of sisterhood, women supporting and comforting one another. One voice.

The Queen of Soul. The 2015 Kennedy Center Honors video encapsulates better than any of my words what a profound and immutable part of popular music, of America’s collective soul, Aretha Franklin will always remain. Amen.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2018

If You Give a Turtle a Cookie

512px-Sen_Mitch_McConnell_official
(Photo: United States Senate, Official Photo. Public Domain)

 

If you give a turtle a cookie,

He’s going to ask for a SCOTUS seat.

If you give him a SCOTUS seat,

He’ll probably fill it with an ultra-conservative, partisan hack.

When he’s finished, he’ll count his money from the NRA.

Then he’ll want to take away your health care.

When he tries to take away your health care, he might notice that he doesn’t have the votes.

So he’ll probably blame it on the Democrats.

When he’s finished blaming the Democrats, he’ll want to have an unethical lunch with the ultra-conservative partisan hack he put in the SCOTUS seat that he stole from you after you gave him a cookie.

He’ll tell the ultra-conservative partisan hack to start sweeping away all the rights granted to everyone a turtle could possibly hate.

He might get carried away and sweep away voting rights for people of color and every other Democrat-leaning group in the land.

He may even end up banning Muslims as well!

When he’s done, he’ll probably want to destroy workers’ unions and LGBT protections under the law.

You’ll have to listen to the pundits lecturing you about civility,

while the turtle crawls into his insulated turtle-hole, makes himself comfortable and laughs and laughs and laughs.

He’ll probably ask you to read him a story.

So you’ll read him newspaper reports about brown-skinned immigrant babies in DHS jails at the border, and he’ll ask to see the pictures.

When he looks at the pictures of crying babies in cages, he’ll get so excited he’ll want to draw one of his own.

He’ll draw a picture of a woman forced to carry an unwanted or life-threatening pregnancy to term, even in cases of rape or incest.

Then he’ll want to hang the picture on his turtle-hole wall.

Looking at the picture will remind him that

Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land.

So … he’ll ask for another cookie.

In retrospect, you should never have given that slimy bastard a cookie in the first place.

(With apologies to “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” by Laura Joffe Numeroff and Felicia Bond .)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape 2018

Year-end Clearance, Day 2! Rejected Humor Submissions, All Sales Final

rejectedI’m kicking 2017 to the curb with a Toyotathon of humor pieces that never found homes this year.

Today’s offering illustrates how hard it is to keep up with the brutal churn of the news cycle. Remember “Bodega”?  Sure you do. Back in September, a couple of former Google employees announced plans for a startup that would place “Bodega boxes” in lobbies of apartment buildings, office buildings and dorms. These machines, called Bodega, would offer things found in a mom-and-pop corner store, minus Mom and Pop or any pesky human interaction. Essentially, they were proposing hyped-up vending machines. But wait — here’s the best part!  In their funding plan, the founders talked up Bodega boxes as an eventual replacement for “centralized shopping locations” — in other words, they would be replacing those majority-immigrant-owned stores that are always there for you, on holidays, at night, through blizzards and hurricanes. It was tone-deaf tech culture at its worst.

I was a couple hours late out of the gate with my piece, and then a submission-software glitch lost it in the shuffle, making it even later. Bodega’s moment in the outrage cycle was gone within a week. So here’s my satirical take on a terrible tech idea, preserved for posterity.

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Say “Hola” to ABUELA!

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Like many of our friends in Silicon Valley, we, the founders of JoshWorx, sympathize with the hard-working undocumented immigrants being persecuted in the name of nationalism. But sympathizing is one thing; experiencing the cruel upheaval of deportation first-hand is another. That’s what we — Josh and Josh and Josh — learned when we went out to get lunch one day and found that the tamale lady on the corner was gone. We asked around, and when we heard that she got snagged in an ICE dragnet at her kids’ elementary school, we bowed our heads in silent reflection and mourned the loss of that lady’s amazing tamales. Well, Josh and I did — Josh was never that keen on them, but her cart was really close to the office.

Our traumatic experience taught us that Illegal immigrants can’t be removed from society without repercussions. You might ask yourself, If all the undocumented Mexican workers are sent back, who will make my tamales? Who will pull my hair out of the shower drain? Who will do something about that family of raccoons living under Josh’s deck? As you can see, this is a national emergency. Which is why JoshWorx is proud to introduce our game-changing autonomous technology to help the innocent victims of harsh anti-immigration policies — victims like you and me and Josh and Josh. Say “Hola” to ABUELA, your personal immigrant replacement unit!

ABUELA — Autonomous Bot Undertaking Established Latino Assignments — does all the jobs the (sadly) departed undocumented Mexican immigrants in your life used to do, only faster and with no need for awkward conversations in eighth-grade Spanish nouns!

Does your apartment need vacuuming? ABUELA’s Roomba-partnered technology will leave your floors spotless (unlike Marta, who could never quite manage to get to those last few dust bunnies under the bed). Are you hungry? No need to interrupt a binge-watch of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” to visit your neighborhood taqueria — ABUELA’s onboard freezer is stocked with tamales, enchiladas and all the other Mexican comfort foods you crave, while her microwave unit delivers them piping hot to your table! Garden looking scraggly since Luis was sent back to Jalisco against his will? Check out ABUELA’s retractable hedge clippers! You’ll never feel guilty about standing inside your air conditioned home watching ABUELA dig out a dead stump in 101 degree heat — unlike Luis, ABUELA is equipped with an advanced core-temperature-cooling system!

We understand the tragedy of families pulled apart by the anti-immigrant agenda of a probably illegitimate president. We’ve been there. Josh and Josh’s wives, Amanda and Amanda, had to lean out of their respective Director of Marketing jobs after our nannies vanished overnight. And believe us, nobody is happy about it. Which is why we’re working on ABUELITA, a fully automated child-minder/self-driving-car hybrid. But, honestly, it’s not going great at the moment, because Unmarried Josh is always preoccupied with his stupid idea for a bodega-in-a-box. Bro, it’s just a vending machine! Let it go!

Anyway, ABUELA is here to help working parents, hungry programmers and people who aren’t into touching the toilet brush maintain the same quality of life they enjoyed when the immigrants were still around. We at JoshWorx even foresee a day when farmers who’ve lost their undocumented workers can employ whole fleets of ABUELAS to harvest the tomato, squash and blueberry crops rotting in the fields. We just need a little time to figure out a work-around so that ABUELA’s cold mechanical fingers stop crushing the delicate fruit to a pulp. (Hey Siri, take a note: Juicer bot? JUICITA? EL JUICADOR? JUICERO?)

JoshWorx is committed to diversity. ABUELA is the product of a talented engineering team that brings a wide cultural perspective to the table. Although, it’s basically just Josh and Josh at the moment; Masoud went home to Tehran for his sister’s wedding ages ago and seems to have run into some visa trouble. And we hardly ever see Josh anymore, now that he’s found investors for the bodega-in-a-box. But we’re confident that we’ll be able to put an ABUELA in every “casa,” “manana!” Or, more likely, whatever the day after “manana” is — we’ve had our hands full ever since Amanda walked out on Josh, and Amanda was named Director of Marketing for bodega-in-a-box. Every day is “Take Your Children to Work Day” around here, LOL. It’s been really great getting quality time with our kids. We’re so blessed! Seriously, if anyone knows a couple of nannies who’d work for $10 an hour and no benefits, could you shoot their info our way? Ethan! Isabella! Other Ethan!Stop that! ABUELA IS NOT A TOY!

(More rejects tomorrow!)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2017

Never gonna give you up

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My precious. (Photo by Joyce Millman, 2017)
 

Last week, Apple announced the death of the iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle, its last two stand-alone MP3 players. Most people might have been surprised to learn that those two lower-end iPod models had been, in fact, still alive in 2017. As music players, they were eclipsed years ago by the iPhone, and, to a lesser-degree, the iPod Touch (basically, the phone without the calling capability). For younger people, the iPod is as attractive as a gramophone.

The news didn’t surprise me. As the owner of a 2008 4th generation iPod Nano, which I still use every day, I’ve seen the writing on the wall for a long time now. Apple all but abandoned iPod fans like myself when it shifted its focus to the iPhone. I see the business logic to it: Unlike the iPhone, the iPod wasn’t a robust revenue stream. You bought an iPod, you loaded your music onto it, The End. But Apple’s announcement still makes me angry.

Look, I know that, as an old lady who doesn’t see the point of replacing a perfectly good working gadget every five seconds with a shinier iteration of the same, I am not Apple’s target consumer. I can live with that. Tech moves fast, and I made my choice to not move with it.

But it pisses me off that the most perfect portable music delivery system I’ve ever known is now — like a string of forerunners — over. Ever since I was a kid, I carried my music with me, consuming it in my head, on a succession of ’60s transistor radios and ’70s boomboxes, followed by an ’80s Walkman and a ’90s Discman. Just typing the names of those devices conjures flashes of memory. Transistor: On the front porch, in the summer, 10-years-old, AM Top 40 countdown. Boombox: Road trip to Asbury Park, Springsteen cassettes blasting out the windows. Walkman: On the bus, on my way to work, earphones in, listening to mix tapes. Discman: Man, I really disliked the Discman. Yes, CD’s sounded better and were more convenient to search than cassettes. But, unlike the Walkman, it was practically impossible to be mobile while using one. The discs skipped and I hated the stupid foam fanny pack-type belt holder accessory. I still have a Discman in the junk drawer. What a ridiculous invention.

But my first iPod … sweet liberation! Light, palm-sized, skip-proof, no physical media to carry, yet you could take your entire music collection with you — it was the best of all worlds. I had a 2004 1st generation iPod Mini, green, with the tiny screen and the big click wheel, and I used that baby everywhere. I hooked it onto my waistband, hit “shuffle” and listened to my own freeform radio station when I was cooking dinner (still my favorite use for the iPod). Holding the Mini now, it seems like it weighs a ton, but compared to the Walkman and Discman, it was light as a feather.

I stuck with that Mini until it stopped holding a charge, and moved onto the model that had replaced it, the Nano. Mine was a 2008 16 GB 4th generation, blue, with color display. It was so much lighter and smaller, yet it had a bigger screen and video playback capability, a pleasing, slightly curved, rectangular body, and, of course, a click wheel. I loved the feel of her in my hand, and I’ve had her for nine years, but she needs more charging all the time. I fear the end is near. Apple stopped making MP3 players with click wheels in 2014, switching everything to touchscreen technology. If mine can’t be fixed, I’ll have to hunt down a 4th or 5th generation Nano, or any MP3 with a click wheel, on eBay or someplace.

What is it about the click wheel? It’s simple. You can control it blind, without having to look at it and touch a screen. Use it once and you know instinctively where to place your thumb on the wheel to skip and pause play, how much pressure to apply in circular motion to control volume. With the click wheel, it just takes a second to put down the chopping knife, touch the “skip” or “volume” place on the wheel without taking your eyes off what you’ve got sautéing on the stove, and go back to work. Without the click wheel, it’s impossible to do that. And thanks to that click wheel, the iPod kept me calm through more dental and medical procedures than I care to remember;  I’d hold it in my hand, thumb on the click wheel and turn up the volume to drown out the medical machinery and take my mind off the pain.

When I travel, I carry both my iPod and my iPhone. I could just accept defeat and stream music on my phone, but … no click wheel. And the thing is, more than half of the music on my iPod is my music, that I own, that I loved enough to buy on physical media and then wanted to carry around with me in my pocket, so I transferred it into my iTunes library. Yes! I still do this! I sit there at my laptop feeding CD’s into the slot and picking and choosing tracks to add to my library. And, yes! I own an old MacBook Pro that I won’t replace because it was the last model with an onboard CD drive. Are you seeing a pattern here? (I also refuse to update to the latest version of iTunes, because it sucks, and has sucked for years, and I have the last non-sucky version. As long as it still works, it’s staying.)

I’m fussy and I make no apologies for that. At the same time, I accept that the world will not conform to my fussiness. Which is a good thing, because Apple couldn’t care less about me and my quirks. But it’s not my fault that once upon a time, Apple designed a product that so impeccably fit my needs, I saw no need to replace it. I’ve loved its iPods long and well, and in return, Apple sees us both as obsolete.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2017

 

 

The perfect game

I know I’ve been a little sports-heavy on this blog, but indulge me a few words about Matt Cain. The stalwart grand old man (at the age of 27) of the San Francisco Giants pitching staff sums up everything that’s good and just and right about baseball and sports in general. After seven years of dependable, often dominating, pitching, Cainer pitched his first no-hitter as a major leaguer last night. Not just a no-hitter, but a perfect game, meaning that he allowed no opposing players (in this case, Houston Astros) to reach base. To put this in perspective for non-sports fans, only 22 pitchers in major league history have pitched a perfect game;  no Giant has ever done it. And the only other pitcher to strike out 14 batters in a perfect game, as Cain did, was Sandy Koufax. Look him up, if you’ve never heard the name.

What makes Cain’s perfect game so, well, perfect is that it really could not have happened to a better player and a better man. Cain’s calm, mature demeanor on the field has made him the rock of the Giants staff. He is a quiet but fearless leader, the team’s player union rep. He never whines, never showboats. He handled his recent contract renegotiation with class, never issuing threats or ultimatums. He has been a Giant his whole career, and, thanks to the front office’s commitment to pitching, will finish his career as one. He is the face of the Giants’ connection to Project Open Hand, the venerable San Francisco charity that provides food for people living with HIV and AIDS, sponsoring the annual fun run the Giants hold to raise funds for the group. In the Showtime documentary series about the Giants, “The Franchise,”  Cain came across as a devoted husband and new father, and he remains one of those players about whom you never hear a whiff of scandal. When asked what he did on the day of the perfect game, Cain said that it had been just another homestand day:  had breakfast with his wife and daughter, let “my crazy one and a half year old” run around in a park, you know, family stuff.

And that’s the thing about sports history, you never know when it’s going to happen. You turn on the TV or you head to the park for just another Wednesday night game, except, in baseball, you can never be sure you’ll be seeing just another Wednesday night game. There’s always the potential for ordinary to turn extraordinary. Sports is unscripted drama, but not in the manufactured way of reality TV. It’s a drama (or, often, comedy) that plays out spontaneously, yet no one could have written it better. When Cain, the archetype of the broad-shouldered, un-flashy hero — think Gregory Peck or Gary Cooper  —  took the perfect game into the fifth, and then the sixth, and seventh, the crowd came to life, standing and urging Cain on with every pitch. His teammates went into a hyper-focused state, making impossible catches to take away runs, digging as deep as Cain was to avoid committing errors in the field that would have permitted a man to reach base.

When the final out came, the usually stoic Cain pumped his arm and shouted,  the Giants mobbed him and the crowd wept and cheered.  Recently voted the most unsung pitcher in baseball by his peers in an ESPN Magazine poll,  Cain had finally gotten the recognition he deserved. Catcher Buster Posey, who’s cut from the same preternaturally mature cloth as Cain and who spent most of 2011 recovering from a horrific on field leg and ankle injury, entered the record books as Cain’s battery mate in perfection — the baseball gods taketh away, the baseball gods giveth back and say, “My bad, bro.”

And that’s another beautiful thing about baseball:  Cain was not laboring alone out there, he needed Posey and his teammates (by the way, the final score was 10-0, for a team that usually takes a week to score that many runs) to ensure his achievement. A perfect game may be etched in one man’s legacy, but it is not his legacy, or his accomplishment, alone.  Matt Cain knows it, which is why he sat at the podium answering press questions flanked by Posey on one side and outfielder Gregor Blanco, of the magnificent catch, on the other. And, which is why Matt Cain will have a statue outside AT&T Park someday and Barry Bonds won’t.

Bruce Springsteen wrote a couple of lines in “Long Walk Home” about America itself,  but they apply to baseball as well, and I’ve been thinking about them today as I replay the game in my head:  “Son, we’re lucky in this town, it’s a beautiful place to be born/ It just wraps its arms around you, nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone.”  Perfect words for a perfect game.

© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2012